Category Archives: Farnsworth Wright

Happy Brithday, Farnsworth Wright

Weird Tales editorial office, l. to r., unknown, Farnsworth Wright, Henry Kuttner, Robert Bloch

By the time of his death in 1940, Farnsworth Wright had become one of the most influential editors the field of the fantastic would ever see. Wright was born in 1888 on July, 29.  I would argue his influence on science fiction, fantasy, and horror has been greater than any other editor, including John W. Campbell, Dorothy McIlwraith, Fred Pohl, Ray Palmer, or Hugo Gernsback.

Yes, I realize that last sentence could be controversial, especially the inclusion of Campbell and Gernsback.  So be it.  Farnsworth Wright edited Weird Tales during what is considered to be the magazine’s golden age.  The authors he published have had a greater impact on the literature of the fantastic than those of any other editor at any time in history. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Margaret Brundage

Brundage WT Bat GirlMargaret Brundage was born on this date in 1900.  Brundage gain fame, some would say infamy, illustrating covers for Weird Tales in the 1930s.  She was born Margaret Hedda Johnson and was married briefly married to “Slim” Brundage, a painter with radical politics.  The had one son.  I guess that means the rumor I heard that she used her daughters for models isn’t true.

The best way to honor Brundage is to show examples of her work.  Since the illustrations won’t be to everyone’s taste, and some folks get offended waayy too easily these days, the illustrations will be after the “Continue Reading” break.  What follows may not be approriate for youonger readers and the uptight.  There’s a reason she’s been called “Margaret Bondage.” Continue reading

Blogging Conan: The Scarlet Citadel

It’s been quite a while since I wrote a post on Conan.  All I can say, “Where did the time go?”

Anyway, there are times when you just need to get back to basics.  This weekend has been one of them.

The Frazetta art for “The Scarlet Citadel”, shown at right and originally appearing on the cover of Conan the Usurper, has always been one of my favorites.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t like snakes.  If that were me chained up, I probably be a blubbering mass of jelly.  Anyway, even though it isn’t exactly faithful to Howard’s description, it’s still a masterpiece. 

“The Scarlet Citadel” was the third Conan story published in Weird Tales, following “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Tower of the Elephant“, although “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl” were probably written before Howard wrote “The Scarlet Citadel”.  (Links are to my posts about those stories.)

This story takes place during Conan’s reign as King of Aquilonia.  It opens with him taking 5,000 of his knights and riding to the aid of King Amalrus of Ophir against Strabonus, King of Koth.  With them, and actually the one in charge, is the sorcerer Tsotha-lanti.  It’s a trap, and all of Conan’s men are killed.  Conan is captured and offered his life if he will abdicate.

If you’ve read any of the Conan stories, you should know what his answer is.  As a result, he’s chained in a dungeon in total darkness to wait for the giant snake in the above picture to have him for a snack.

I’m assuming most of the people reading this are familiar with the story, but there are probably one or two of you who either haven’t read it or haven’t read it recently, so I’ll not give much in the way of spoilers. 

It had been a few years since I last read “The Scarlet Citadel” before I reread it the other day, and the images that had most stayed with me were the opening scene and the sequence of Conan and the snake.  It was fun to refresh my memory of this tale.

Howard by this time was becoming comfortable with the character.  His identity is well established.  Howard’s prose is top notch.  There’s a portion of the story in which Howard relates the events in Aquilonia after the population learn (falsely) that Conan is dead.  Howard summarizes the series of events beautifully, painting in broad strokes the usurpation of Conan’s throne by Tsotha-lani’s pawn and giving details about the resistance of certain individuals, such as the student Athemides speaking out and having to flee the city.  This is some of Howard’s better writing, although probably not his absolute best.  It’s certainly better than the passages in “A Witch Shall be Born“, in which the soldier Valerius relates events to his lover Ivga.

Yet, as much as I enjoyed this story, I can’t help feel that Howard was never really comfortable with Conan as a king.  While he’s still king, he spends most of the story trying to regain his throne.  Most of the story that’s told from Conan’s point of view consists of his capture and adventures in the dungeon, plus the concluding portion of the final fight at the end.  We never really see him in any kingly role.  And even though he’s portrayed more like a ruler in “The Phoenix on the Sword” and The Hour of the Dragon, I can’t shake the impression that Howard is at his most comfortable with the character when he’s not a king.  Even in The Hour of the Dragon, Conan spends much of his time traveling in order to regain his throne and even reminisces about when he was a wanderer. I know the Conan stories I’ve enjoyed the most have been those in which Conan answered to no one, even if there was a woman he was protecting.

Much of this one after Conan manages to escape consists of summaries and skips over some of the details.  If filled in, those details would turn this particular adventure into a short novel.  I don’t know if Howard didn’t feel as though he could write some of the details effectively or if he didn’t think he could sell Farnsworth Wright a story of that length about this relatively new character.  Certainly on the surface the basic concept of Conan having to fight against an invading army here bears a strong resemblance to the basic plot of The Hour of the Dragon.  Perhaps Howard felt more comfortable a few years later when he wrote Dragon, or if the character was by then popular enough to sustain a serial of that length.  Of course, by the time he wrote The Hour of the Dragon, Hester’s health was in a steep decline, and he probably needed the money a novel would bring more than he did when he wrote “The Scarlet Citadel”. 

“The Scarlet Citadel” is well worth the read.  The action is broken up into two main parts, the first being Conan’s capture and subsequent escape, and the second relates what happens in Aquilonia while he’s gone and how he gets his throne back.  It’s not one of the longer Conan stories, and it’s readily available in a number of collections.

Blogging Northwest Smith: Scarlet Dream

“Scarlet Dream”
C. L. Moore

This post contains content of an adult nature and is not suitable for younger readers.  You have been warned.

“Scarlet Dream” is the third Northwest Smith story.  In terms of sexually charged imagery, it’s the most explicit of the ones so far, hence the warning above.  (My discussions of “Shambleau” and “Black Thirst” can be found here andhere.)  There will be spoilers, as well.  You’ve been doubly warned.

When the story opens, Smith is wandering through the Lakkmanda Market on Mars.  The name has a decidedly Leigh Brackett feel to it.  “Scarlet Dream” was published in 1934, predating Brackett’s Mars by a few years, but still I can’t help wondering if Brackett was influenced a bit by the name.

Smith spies a shawl with an intricate pattern consisting of a scarlet thread woven in a blue and green background.  The Martian vendor displaying tells Smith the thing gives him a headache, and he sells it to Smith for a good price.

After he returns to his quarters, Smith tries to trace the pattern on the shawl, gives up, covers himself with it, and goes to sleep.  Sometime in the night he begins dreaming that he’s walking up a mist enshrouded stair.  He soon loses sight of the bottom.

Eventually he is nearly run over by a young girl with long orange hair, wearing a short shift, and covered in blood.  She babbles something about some type of monster killing her sister.  Smith manages to calm her enough to carry her to the top of the stairs.  Once there he takes her into a side room, sets her on a stone bench, and gets a little more explanation from her.

The girl, who is never named, tells Smith that he’s dreaming but that he’s entered a dream world that can only be exited by death or by a fate worse than dying.  Most of Smith’s questions are answered along the lines of “We find it best not to think/ask/do that.”  This includes trying to leave or learn new things.  Indeed, it’s only when Smith eventually decides to leave that the monster shows up and attacks him.  But that comes later.

One of the things she tells him is that no one has ever gone down the stairs he came up.  She only went down the stairs in a panic.  Why Smith doesn’t at some point try to retrace his steps is never explained.  But if he did, then there would be no story.

Smith and the girl are in giant temple, and she leads him outside to a lake and a small shrine containing two cots, two blankets, and a few clothes.  It’s completely open to the air, but since the temperature never changes, that’s not a problem.

The trees seem to bend towards them, and the grass certainly does.  Smith eventually learns that if a person stands barefoot in the grass for long, it will begin sucking blood through the feet.  The trees are implied to be flesh eating.

Smith sits with the girl beside the lake, drifts off, and comes to as night is falling.  Moore implies that at this point Smith engages the girl in sex.  Regular sex between them is implied, with the word “kiss” and its variations being a euphemism for more than a kiss.  In spite of the raciness of the covers Farnsworth Wright selected for Weird Tales, the contents tended to be squeaky clean.  One of Robert E. Howard’s early Conan stories was rejected because Wright felt Conan took too many liberties with a young lady.  (My opinion of that can be found here.)

Where Moore engages in some serious sexual imagery is when the girl shows Smith the only source of food.  She takes him to a hall in the temple in which there are people “eating”.  That there are other people present is mentioned more than once, but this is the only time we see them.  Smith has no interaction with them.  In fact, they’re only mentioned in a few sentences, basically as backdrop.

The way people eat is they kneel before spigots in the wall, spigots that curve upwards.  What they drink from the spigots is blood, with the hint that it contains some addictive substance.  Once Smith realizes what he’s drinking, he’s repulsed but finds himself returning the next day.  Moore goes into details describing how pleasant and yet repulsive feeding is, dwelling on the taste.

Now I don’t know what mental picture you get, but what comes to my mind now is the same thing that came to mind when I was 15.  Fellatio, although I had not encountered that word at the time.  It’s hard to escape that image.  The posture of kneeling, along with Moore deliberately stating that the spigots curve upward from the wall, leave little room for any other conclusion.  What I have to wonder is what Wright thought about this imagery, or if he even noticed it.  I doubt we’ll ever know.  Smith comes to enjoy the feeding more than the girl, although he never completely overcomes his revulsion of it.

Smith eventually spies mountains through the surrounding mist, attempts to leave, is attacked by the monster, and drives it off with his blaster.  It’s at this point that the girl tells Smith she would rather lose him to the fate worse than death than through death at the hand of the monster.  She helps him get home, although he doesn’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.

Smith awakens to find his partner Yarol and a doctor leaning over him.  Smith has been in a coma for a week.  Seems Smith can’t be left alone to wander about on Mars without getting into trouble.  Yarol gave the shawl away while Smith was out.  The pattern was giving him a headache.

This is the third Northwest Smith story, and other than “Shambleau”, it’s the one that has stuck out the most in my mind since I first read the series nearly 30 years ago.  Again, I’m struck by how graphic the sexual imagery is in these stories.  If my parents had known what I was reading….

Moore seems to have a theme of vampirism going as well.  In the first story, the vampire fed on life essence, in the second beauty, and now the grass actually drinks blood.

I’m going to continue this series.  The post on “Black Thirst” is in the top 10 most viewed posts I’ve done.  Stay tuned.  There’s more to come.  Or should that be Moore to come?

C. L. Moore Turns 102

Catherine Lucille Moore was born on this day in 1911.  She was one of the greatest fantasy and science fiction authors to work in the field.  That’s the oldest picture of her I could find.  I saw a photo of her when I was in college that was (I think) taken shortly before her death.  She was sitting on the steps of a back porch, and the photo was shot from what I would consider an intermediate distance.  If anyone is familiar with the picture and knows where I can get a copy, I would appreciate your letting me know.

I wrote a tribute last year and a belated tribute the  year before, so I wanted to do something different this year.  So after giving some basic facts, I’ll tell you what I have in mind.

First, the facts.  Moore was working in an Indiana bank when she published her first story.  The legend is that she wrote on a company typewriter after hours while working late.  Legend also has it that Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright was so impressed by it that he closed the offices for the rest of the day.  I don’t  know for sure if either event actually happened that way, but if they didn’t, they should have.  Moore went on to write some quite successful science fiction on her own before marrying fellow science fiction writer Henry Kuttner, probably my all time favorite author for at least three days of every week.  After Kuttner died in 1958, Moore left the field.  She remarried, and again legend has it, her new husband didn’t want her writing science fiction.  Also again, I don’t know if that’s true.  By this time she was writing for television, which paid considerably better.

She left quite a legacy, both on her own and with her husband.  I’m going to take a closer look at that legacy this year.  Again both her individual legacy and the one she shares with Kuttner.  I’ve got a lot on my plate, and I can see I’ll need something to act as a sanity check.

For quite some time now I’ve been intending to take a closer look at her two signature series, Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith.  Jirel was one of the first, if not the very first, sword and sorcery heroine who could swing a blade as well as any man.  Northwest Smith was been called the prototype for Han Solo.  I’ll deal with that in an upcoming post.

I’ve decided to start with the Northwest Smith stories (although I will cover the Jirel tales as well).  They’re set in outer space, but they have strong fantasy elements, so I’m going to post the essays about them here rather than on Futures Past and Present.  I intend to post the first one in the next day or so.  Stick around.  It’s been nearly 30 years since I read most of them, but images from some of the stories are still clear in my mind.  They left quite a mark on a very impressionable young teenager.  We’ll see how well they hold up to middle aged scrutiny.

Blogging Conan: The God in the Bowl

Coming of ConanThis is one of the shorter Conan pieces.  It was probably the third Conan story Howard wrote and one of the few rejected by Farnsworth Wright when he submitted it to Weird Tales.  It wouldn’t see publication until years after Howard’s death.

This story has always been one of my favorite Conan tales.  It’s unique in that it’s at heart a police procedural, and a rather good one, even if it does have some stereotypical good cop-bad cop interplay. It’s also something of a locked room mystery.

Conan has broken into a museum of sorts, having been commissioned to steal a particular artifact.  Instead he finds the night watchman bending over the corpse of the building’s owner.  Conan thinks the man is another thief.  He realizes his mistake when the watchman pulls a cord, which rings a bell summoning the city watch.

The prefect in charge of the watch thinks Conan is the killer and wants to beat a confession out of him.  Accompanying the watch on their rounds this particular night is Demetrios, chief of he Inquisitorial Council.  He understands just how foolish such a course of action will be.

Instead of beating Conan, Demetrios interrogates him.  Conan freely admits he’s in the building to steal, but steadfastly denies killing the owner, whose name is Kallian Publico.  It’s a shame Howard didn’t write more of this sort of thing, because he seems to have had a knack for this type of dialogue.  I think this story has examples of some of Howard’s crispest, best dialogue in any of his works.  Other suspects are eventually brought in, including Kallian Publico’s chief clerk, Promero.  When the prefect orders a particularly sadistic guard to beat Promero for information, Demetrios does nothing to stop it.  In fact, Howard’s entire portrayal of Promero is one of disdain.  Conan at one point calls him a weakling and a fool.

The contrast between how the police treat Conan and how they treat Promero is intriguing.  Demetrios tends to believe Conan’s story that he didn’t kill Kallian Publico, while the prefect insists he did and on the basis of little evidence.  Demetrios respects Conan’s courage and strength while Promero’s weakness attracts only bullying.  It would be easy to dismiss the actions of the police here as entirely stereotypical of crime fiction of the day, but I think that would be a mistake.  While there is some stereotyping going on in the way the police behave, I think Howard was using that to make a point about strength and weakness.  Weakness attracts abuse.  Demetrios respects Conan’s strength too much to challenge him.  He knows he’s likely to lose.

The other thing of interest is what is implied by the sarcophagus that everything centers around.  It seems Kallian Publico had acquired a bowl shaped sarcophagus from Stygia earlier in the day.  It had been sent as a gift from Thoth-amon (who appeared in “The Phoenix on the Sword“), priest of Set, to Kalanthes, priest of Ibis.  Ibis and Set don’t get along, so why Thoth-amon would send Kalanthes a gift is something of a mystery at first.  Kallian Publico acquired the sarcophagus from the leader of the caravan transporting it.  The caravan leader didn’t want to go out of his way to deliver it, and so left it with Kallian Publico to deliver.  Of course, Kallian Publico had no intention of delivering the sarcophagus.  Instead he opened it…and received what was intended for Kalanthes.

“The God in the Bowl” seems (to me at least) to be considered a minor Conan story.  It’s certainly not one of the ones I’ve heard talked much about at gatherings of Howard fans.  I think that’s a shame.  Howard was stretching himself as a writer with this story.  By adding the mystery/police procedural element, he was trying something new.  A careful examination of Howard’s oeuvre reveals he did this frequently when he wanted to branch into a new genre.  That fact that not all of his attempts were successful is less important than the fact that he tried and wasn’t afraid to experiment.  We would have been poorer, and Howard’s work less moving, if he hadn’t tried at all.

Blogging Conan: Jewels of Gwahlur/The Servants of Bit-Yakin

This was one of the last Conan stories Howard wrote.  Only four more would follow, but those four contain two of his greatest masterpieces, “Beyond the Black River” and “Red Nails.”  Howard’s title was “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”, but Farnsworth Wright changed the title to “Jewels of Gwahlur” when he published it in Weird Tales.  That’s the title it was known by until the Wndering Star/Del Rey editions, which restored the original title.  However, there are some collections in print which are using the Weird Tales versions of Howard’s stories, so you might find it under either title.  Unlike some of Howard’s work, there’s no difference between his preferred version and the version that appeared in Weird Tales.

This isn’t one of the better Conan stories.  The plot requires swallowing a pretty large pill, namely that a treasure as valuable as the Teeth of Gwahlur (as they’re called in the story) could remain unmolested in a lost jungle city for so long.  Also, the heroine is way too hysterical.  She’s certainly no Belit.
The basic setup involves Conan working as a mercenary in the Black Kingdoms.  He’s there because he’s heard rumors of a great treasure in a lost city, Alkmeenon, and is waiting around to find out the details.  When an old enemy, the STygian Thutmekri, shows up and bribes some of the priests to take him to Alkmeenon, Conan is able to find out where it is.  Knowing Thutmekri is working for the kingdom of Zembabwei and the whole thing is a set-up for an invasion, Conan leaves ahead of them.
Alkmeenon is hidden in a natural amphitheater surrounded by sheer cliffs.  Not knowing the location of the secret entrance to the valley, Conan climbs the cliffs.  Near the top he encoutners a small cave in which he finds a mummy holding a tube containing a parchment.  Of course he takes it.  This was one of the more powerful images in the story for me.  Conan is hundreds of feet above the ground and comes face to face with a corpse.
I’m a sucker for lost city stories, particularly those that take place in jungles.  The thing that makes this one unique is that so much of it is set in a series of caves and underground passages beneath the city.  We know that Howard was inspired by a visit to Carlsbad Caverns when he wrote this one. 
Another powerful scene, occurring about halfway through the story, is when Conan is attempting to sneak up on one of the people who have not followed but preceded him to the valley.  Knowing the location of the secret entrance has its advantages.  It’s dusk, and Conan sees the white of his face contrasted against the darkness of the forest.  When he approaches the man, Conan discovers its only the man’s head he sees, tied to a branch by the hair.  The valley is supposed to be deserted…
“TheServants of Bit-Yakin” (or “Jewels of Gwahlur” if you prefer) isn’t the best Conan story, but it isn’t the worst either.  It’s simply an adventure story, and a better than average one at that.  While there are some problems with the characterization and some of the plot details, it still has its moments.  In my opinion, it’s worth reading.

Blogging Kull and Conan: Of Axes and Swords

And so we reach the end of our look at the Kull stories (almost; I’ll have some general comments in a separate post) and the first of the Conan posts.  I’m looking at both of these because the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, is a rewrite of an unsold Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”.

“By This Axe” isn’t a bad story, but it isn’t a particularly good one, certainly not be the standards Howard had set in some of the other Kull installments.  There are two main aspects to the plot.  First, a group of dissatisfied men, two noblemen, a guard captain, and a poet, have recruited a former diplomat turned bandit, Ascalante, to help them overthrow Kull.  This portion of the story is the better half. 

The second portion of the plot concerns a young nobleman who wishes to marry a young slave girl who happens to be owned by one of the conspirators.  This type of situation seems to be a recurrent theme in the Kull series, mostly in stories not published in Howard’s lifetime.  Kull’s Councilor Tu insists that for a nobleman to marry a slave is simply not done; it would violate a centuries old law.

Kull sneaks out of the palace to wander the woods for a few hours.  He feels like a slave himself.  There’s a great deal of discussion on Kull’s part at various places in the story about how holding a throne is much more difficult than taking it.  During his walk in the woods, he encounters a young girl weeping.  Not recognizing him, she tells him that she’s a slave in love with a nobleman, who went to the king to request permission to marry.  Kull is sympathetic, but argues the king has to abide by the laws himself.

The rest of the story concerns the conspiracy attempting to assassinate Kull and failing.  In the end, he uses his axe to smash the stone tablet on which is written the law forbidding slaves and nobility to marry.  He declares that he is the law.

It’s easy to see why Farnsworth Wright rejected this story when Howard submitted it to Weird Tales.  The whole romance subplot basically ruins the story.  The slave girl comes across as both childish and childlike.  She speaks of being spanked as punishment by her master at one point.  She’s weepy and clingy.  And her dialogue reminds me of early Shirley Temple movies or child characters in Victorian novels, all sweetness and earnestness.  There’s was no way I was buying that this girl and the nobleman were madly in love.  That whole aspect of the story had an almost pedaeophilic tone to it.  I’m sure Howard didn’t intend anything of the sort.  It’s just a combination of his still developing skill as a writer and my twenty-first century cultural concerns coming together.  Still, the whole thing gave me the creeps.

One thing did make me wonder just what Howard was dealing with in his own life when he wrote this story. At one point the girl deeclares: “Why should laws not change? Time never stands still! Why should people today be shackled by laws which were made for our barbarian ancestors thousands of years ago-” It sounds like Howard may have been feeling a little bit shackled and enslaved by the culture he was living in. I know from first-hand experience that small towns in that part of Texas can be extremely conformist in their outlook, and in the 1920s I’m sure it was much worse. Howard was in his early 20s when he wrote this, and I suspect was still feeling some of the natural rebellion of youth that questions why things have to be the same as they were. This is entirely speculation on my part, but it fits with what I know about Howard and my experiences in similar environments.
 

“The Phoenix on the Sword”, while not one of Howard’s best stories, and certainly not the best of the Conan tales, is clearly the work of a more mature writer.  Howard drops the whole romance subplot, and instead introduces a villain whose hand would be felt in a couple of other stories, the Stygian sorceror Thoth-amon.  He’s a slave to the bandit as the tale opens, having lost a ring by which he maintains his power.  Of course he finds it, and uses it to wreack his revenge by sending a creature from the Outer Darkness against the bandit.  This is the only thing that saves Conan.  The creature attacks during the assassination attempt.  In the Kull story, it’s the nobleman who saves the day.
There’s also a new scene in which Conan in a cream meets a wise man who died fifteen hundred years earlier.  This man tells Conan that his fate and that of Aquilonia, the kingdom Conan rules, are entertwined.  He places a phoenix emblem on Conan’s sword, which is what allows Conan to kill the supernatural creature.
The scenes retained from “By This Axe”, portions of the conspiracy, Conan complaining about the duties of ruling, and the assassination scence are to a large extent unchanged except for some of the names.  Only when Howard made significant changes to the plot, such as the addition of the creature in the fianl fight, does he engage in any extensive rewriting.  Since the parts he retained were by far the better passages, this doesn’t hurt the story any.
Unlike the Kull series, the Conan stories weren’t written in any kind of chronological order, but jumpmed about throughout the character’s life.  Also, Kull has no interest in women.  Conan has plenty.  Even a casual reading of the two series will reveal that, while there are similarities, Kull isn’t simply Conan-lite.
So, we’ve looked at all the Kull stories mostly in the order they appear in the current edition from Del Rey.  I’ll be jumping around more with the Conan stories, looking at whichever one I’m in the mood to read at a given time.  I’ll also be giving fewer spoilers in the Conan posts.  With the movie less than a month away, I suspect I’ll pick up one or two new readers.  I don’t want to spoil any of the fun for those who haven’t read the originals.

The Adventures Fantastic Interview: Mark Finn, Part 2

Last week, in part 1 of this interview, Mark Finn discussed his own writing, both biography and fiction.  In this installment, he continues sharing his thoughts on other Howard related topics.

AF:  Do you think there been any faithful adaptations of Howard to film?
MF:  Howard films…I have to tell you a quick story, an anecdote.  We managed to get ahold of a copy of Solomon Kane from a friend who taped a bootleg.  My wife Cathy was real excited to sit down and watch it.  We were five minutes in, and she said, “Was this Robert E. Howard right here?”
And I said, “No.”
Then she said, “Okay.”  And we watch a little bit more.  He goes through the things he goes through and he’s killing people left and right, and she says, “This has got to be Howard.”
And I said, “No, this isn’t in any of the Solomon Kane stories.”  
“Huh.”
I said, “I’ll tell you what.  I’ll let you know when the Howard stuff shows up ’cause I’ll probably get real excited about it.”
She goes, “Great.”
Thirty minutes go by.  She says, “He’s met the family now.  Is this Howard?”
“No, this isn’t Howard.”
We get to about ten minutes before the end, and she says, “Honey, is there any Robert E. Howard in this?”
I said, “Well, the guy’s name is Solomon Kane.” 
She said, “Honey, that doesn’t count.”

You know, it’s a little sad that the best one of the bunch is still the old “Pigeons From Hell” Thriller episode.  Boris Karloff’s adaptation of “Pigeons From Hell” still stands out as following the storyline.  Which is such a novel approach.  Why didn’t I think of that?  Why not just take something from the books?  How simple and how basic.  “No, no, no, you don’t understand, Mark, we’ve got to rewrite Conan so that he’s on a quest for vengeance.”  Oh, cause that hasn’t been done to death.  Yeah, yeah, that makes prefect sense.  Yeah, why not, why not?  In fact, I got an idea.  Why don’t you have a Vikings kill his family.  We’ve never seen that before in a film. 
It just makes me crazy that these guys in LA have…I don’t think it’s ignorance.  I think it’s a willful self confidence there that feeds an ego that has to be the size of C’thulhu.  It’s the only thing that makes sense.  If I come to them with a proposal set in a savage land in a distant time about a guy who walks into town out of the wilderness and through strength, cunning, guile, his own wits, he pulls himself up by his bootstraps to become the most famous rogue in town.  But because he’s still new in town he hasn’t counted on the forces of civilization rallying around him, and so the story ends when he’s betrayed and has to leave town.  And they say, “What’s the name of this piece?”  and I say, “Krogan the Mercenary”.  They’d be like [snaps fingers], “Awesome, we’ll run with it.  It’ll be just like Walter Hill did in Last Man Standing.  Yeah.  We won’t give him an origin.  No, it makes him mysterious.  Perfect!  I love it!” 
That should be the Conan movie.  That should be the Conan movie.  But no, noooo, let’s give him a family.  Even though Robert E. Howard’s stuff so seldom uses family for anything, much less a motif for vengeance.  Usually it’s an excuse to move away. 

The Conan movie’s coming out.  I’ll show it at the theater.  But it’s not gonna be Conan. I mean there may be more stuff in it.  We haven’t seen it, so obviously we don’t know what elements got taken out.  But I can tell you right now, if the plot involves him going on a quest for vengeance to get the guy that got his parents, that’s not Robert E. Howard.  It’s just not.  It may be an entertaining movie.  There may be some pieces and parts where you go, “Wow, that’s a pretty Conan-esque type of thing that’s going on right there.”  Until they figure out that this stuff works because it’s been around this long and people respond to it on a visceral level, until they figure that out, we’re gonna have this problem.  I wish it was different.  Moreover, I wish they would fly me out to Hollywood for a week.  I’ll take a meeting with them.  I can fix this.  I just know it.  Get the executives out the room and let me talk to the scriptwriter, okay?  I’ll even put it in the language of film.  There’s a hundred film examples of exactly the kind of thing that can be used for this.  Most of the executives are thirty-five and don’t watch movies, so what are you going to do with that?  What’s the next question?

AF:  What one question would you have for Howard if you could ask him anything?
MF:  If I had just one question?
AF:  Or a series of questions if you prefer.
MF:  I thought about this the other day.  I was watching a Ben Franklin documentary and realized the five people that you would have breakfast with, you know, would be…one of them would be Robert E. Howard, of course.  I think I would ask him, if I had just one question to ask him, it would be, “Do you…”  Actually, this is what I would ask him.  “How do you see yourself?”  I would want to know how he saw himself because I think that would answer a lot.  And I know he writes about it in the letters, but I think in the letters he also puts on a lot of different faces depending on who he’s talking to.  If I got the chance to look him in the eyes and see what he says, I want to know how he sees himself because we’ll know.  And if I could tell him one thing, it would be “It’s gonna get better.”  I’d like to pull him aside at the beginning of 1936 and say, “You will get through this.”  Would it help?  Who knows, I mean when people have made up their minds that they’re gonna do that, especially when people are clinically depressed, decide they’re taking a path… [sighs]

AF: I think that’s the desire of every Robert E. Howard fan, to talk him off the ledge so to speak.

MF:  And the thing is, you know the question is, if you talk him off the ledge in 1936, what’s to say he doesn’t get back on that ledge in ’37?  The things that he’s dealing with, presuming he would get through the funeral and make it a few months down the road, where does he go?  Does he go with his dad?  What does he do?  There’s this continual grieving process.  For a guy who spent most of his life as a caregiver to his mother, as a guy, who, whether he wanted to or not, identified himself as a caregiver to his mother, that piece of his identity is gone.  They’ve done studies about this now, and noted that when children take care of parents in a caregiving role for a number of years, you get all sorts of depressed behavior, and suicide becomes a major thing because the one reason why they’re doing what they’re doing has been taken away.  So there’s no guarantees that we would have gotten a whole lot of stories from Robert E. Howard.  There’s no guarantees he would have made it to World War II.  When you’re dealing with someone who’s been that depressed for that long, who’s to say?  But I would ask him what he thought of himself.  Or optionally, I would ask him why he never talked about his humor because that was the stuff that put food on his table for most of his writing career.  And very little is said about it.  He’s always more interested in talking about the horror stories or whatever, but the stuff that he came to rely on for a steady paycheck was the funny boxing and the funny westerns.
AF:  What do you see as the state of Howard scholarship and where do you think it’s going over the next few years?

MF:  I think Howard scholarship is alive and well.  I think we’re in a lull right now because a lot of people’s projects are coming to an end.  And the may be the end of the second Howard boom’s scholarship push.  The internet has helped since we can react to things that are on there now, that’s been useful in keeping things alive, but until all of Robert E. Howard’s fiction is in print in some form or fashion, we won’t have Rusty and Patrice for the big stuff.  That’s what they’re doing.  That’s the job they’ve set themselves.  As a task, as fans, we should be grateful for that.  They’ve had eleven Del Rey books come out.  And even though it won’t be the funny stuff.  The funny stuff is what’s left, and once that’s done, and they take a mental break, I’m sure both of them are gonna dive into the biography.  It’s not that they haven’t wanted to work on it, it’s that they haven’t had time.  So I think we have one more big push yet to have happen, and I’m not sure yet if it’s going to be during this big push, this third age of Howard scholarship that he won’t join the American literary canon in the way that Lovecraft has and Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, and all those guys.  I think that’s an inevitability, and we’re already moving in that direction anyway.  The next five years is when you’re gonna start seeing Rusty and Patrice come out of the cave and start talking about stuff and the biographical debate comes up again.  I think it’s around that time, either just before, during, or just after, is when he goes in the Library of the Americas.  At that point you’re gonna see a lot of people back off and go “Ahhh.  Now I can go read this and enjoy it again.”  It tends to be a singular focus when you’re working on this stuff.  There’s just one problem you’ve gotta just tackle and tackle until it’s dead and you look up and find another thing.  I think of it like that, and I don’t begrudge what anybody is doing.  Like I’ve said before, it’s important to have those authoritative texts out.  The Foundation has made all the poetry available for the first time ever.  Now we’ve got the wonder three volume set of the letters.  Essential.  So they’re setting up for the next wave.  I think that’s what all this is right here.  And if the academics continue to come to this, as we’ve seen starting with last year, with a couple of very strong academics, Justin and Diedre, I think they’re going to be instrumental in leading some more academics to Howard.  I think that’s when the real interesting stuff will begin. 

AF:  Last question.  What question would you ask that I haven’t if you were conducting this interview?

MF:  I would have asked me if I had any regrets about what I’d done in Howard studies.  But, I don’t have any regrets, so that’s kind of a boring question.  [laughs].  I wish the REH Manifesto had been a little bit shorter because I wrote it ostensibly to just tell the people:  If you going to shoot your mouth off and you’re going to come out with some alleged knowledge, don’t tell me “I’ve read a few Conan stories, and here’s what I found out about Robert E. Howard.”  You’re reading the one character that he commercially engineered over any of his other material to be something that he could sell to Weird Tales.  That’s not to say that Howard didn’t enjoy it and that’s not to say he didn’t invest in it, but the elements in the stories that a lot of people had a problem with, if you view Conan as the thing he constructed to try and get Farnsworth Wright’s attention and knew that certain things like women wearing certain things like gossamer silk robes and being whipped by other women, if he knew that stuff like that made it into Weird Tales and got cover space, which usually was a little bit more money, and became things that Farnsworth Wright featured.  And he put that in there, then the Conan stories become the anomaly, not the rule.  “Sword Woman”, which was unpublished in Howard’s lifetime, is much more Howardian in tone.  It’s not until those early Conan stories, where he’s trying to find his way, which tend to be some of the best ones, and then the later Conan stories, when he’s trying to break away, tend to be some of the best ones.  In the middle you’ve got some fairly formula Conan stories, and these were the ones that Wright was featuring; these are the ones that Wright was lapping up.  So, was Conan the way he always did things, or was it the exception to the rule.  I think Conan was the exception, but then again , I’ve been steeped in this for a decade now.  I’ve read the Conans over and over, and I’ve all the other stuff, and I”ve looked at all of this.  I don’t expect BobaFett1972 at aol.com to know that.  I wrote the manifesto as basically, if say I don’t like him, he’s too bloody for my taste, I’m not a big fan of the subject matter, and I tend to like my fantasy a little more epic and a little less down in the dirt, I can’t say anything bad about that.  But if you tell me that Howard clearly had a problem with women, and after reading three Solomon Kane stories it’s clear that he was a virulent racist, I have to put the brakes on that.  I wrote the Manifesto to basically tell people think before you type.  What they took from that was “God, he doesn’t like it if anybody says anything negative about Robert E. Howard.”  Which is not the case.  I would love to read a negative critique of Robert E. Howard based on what’s in there.  Not what you think is in there, not your mind tells you your mind tells you is in there, not what you remember from your D&D days as being in there.  So far I haven’t seen that critique yet, but maybe one day we’ll get it.
AF:  Thank you very much.
MF:  You’re welcome.

Blogging Kull: The Striking of the Gong

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

This is one of the shorter Kull stories, only three and a half pages in the Del Rey edition.  In fact it’s more of vignette or a philosophical meditation than an actual story.  In it Howard reflects on some of the philosophy he’d been reading and meditating on.

The story, to the extent that it is a story, consists mostly of a dialogue between Kull and an old man.  Kull finds himself in darkness, a great throbbing in his head.  He’s not sure where he is or how he came to be there.  He rises to his feet, sees a light, and begins to walk towards it.

Encountering an old man, Kull inquires as to where he is.  The man tells him he’s come through the Door.  Kull is able to recall that he heard a gong striking and then he woke up in the darkness.  What ensues is a discussion about life and death and what constitutes either.  Universes within universes are considered, as well as the rise and fall of races and kingdoms.  “Time and space are relative and do not really exist,” the old man declares.  He continues by saying, “The ‘everlasting’ stars change in their own time, as swiftly as the races of men rise and fade.  Even as we watch, upon those which are planets, beings are rising from the slime of the primeval, are climbing up the long slow roads to culture and wisdom, and are being destroyed with their dying worlds.  All life and a part of life.”

Some of the discussion echoes one of Howard’s letters to Harold Preece in early 1928.  “The fact is that life is simply a passing phase of this planet, not the real reason for the planet’s existence, but simply a result of its growth.  Life, and especially man’s life, is simply result then, and not a cause.  There may be, may be, I say, a real reason for the existence of matter and energy, but whatever that reason, that purpose is, man is no more essential to its culmination than any weed or tree.”  [Collected Letters, v. 1, p. 198]

Kull then comes to his senses to learn that he was attacked by an assassin and suffered a head wound.  The whole conversation, and the moving of the stars that Kull and the old man watched, took place within a matter of minutes.

This is by far one of the most philosophical Kull tales, if for no other reason than the philosophy takes up most of the story.  For some reason, Howard didn’t submit this one to Weird Tales, perhaps because Farnsworth Wright had already rejected some of the  Kull stories.  I don’t know if Wright’s rejections of those stories still exist.  I’m not aware that they do, but I have to wonder if he rejected them on the basis of too much philosophy and not enough action.  For whatever reason, Howard chose to send this one to Argosy.  They didn’t accept it, either, and “The Striking of the Gong” remained unpublished (in its original version) until 1976, when it was published in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard.