Category Archives: L. Sprague de Camp

New BAF Post on The Young Magicians

Young MagiciansI’ve got a new BAF post up at Black Gate.

This one is on The Young Magicians, the second anthology of the series that Lin Carter edited.  It’s a companion to Dragons, Elves, and Heroes.  This one starts at William Morris and continues up to what was then the present day (1969).  Included are selections by Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, Kuttner, Merritt. and de Camp, as well as Lin Carter himself.

Blogging Northwest Smith: Shambleau

“Shambleau” is the first of the Northwest Smith adventures, and the first published story by C. L. Moore.  According to Lester del Rey, in his introduction to The Best of C. L. Moore (1975), she had been writing for 15 years before she submitted anything for publication.  I’d like to know where he got that information, but I’m not questioning it.  Since he’d known Moore personally for decades, I’m inclined to believe him.  Of course, what I’d like even more is to get my hands on some of those unpublished stories.  I suspect they’ve long since ceased to exist.

I don’t remember if “Shambleau” was the first story I read by C. L. Moore, but it certainly made the strongest impact on me.  Here’s a synopsis of what happens (spoiler alert):

A young woman is being chased by a mob down a street in a spaceport town on Mars.  The mob is closing in on her when she runs into Northwest Smith, a notorious criminal.  He intervenes on her behalf to the bafflement of the crowd.  Smith takes her back to his room, tells her she’s welcome to stay for the few days until he gives up the room and leaves.  This girl isn’t human, and Smith doesn’t recognize her race.  She’s dressed only in a shift and a turban.  Smith assumes she’s bald.  He realizes later she’s not when he sees her tuck what he thinks is a lock of hair under her turban.  He’s sure he saw the lock move on its own.  But he must be mistaken…

While Moore points out that sexual temptations don’t have much hold on Smith, he does find her attractive enough to make advances.  At least until he takes in his arms, at which point he finds her repulsive.  He doesn’t really understand why that is, only that the repulsion he feels is almost primal in nature.

Smith is in town setting up some type of criminal venture.  We’re not ever told what.  Over the next few days, Smith experiences a back and forth attraction and repulsion.  He struggles with it, but ultimately he succumbs.  Only when Smith’s partner Yarol shows up does Smith have a chance of escape, and even then it’s not easy.

Moore is playing with the concept of a gorgon, and goes so far as to state that the ancient Greeks had some knowledge of the Shambleau, which is the name of the race rather than of the girl.  She even takes her resolution from that myth.

One of the things that’s so interesting about this story is that for all its length (~30 pages), not much actually happens.  Other than the initial confrontation, which takes less than 5 pages, and Yarol’s rescue of Smith and the conversation that follows, about half of the story revolves around the Shambleau’s seduction of Smith.  Yet Moore’s prose is so rich that you hardly notice that that many pages have passed.

Caedmon Records recording of “Shambleau”

And it’s the seduction that is the heart and soul of the story.  Moore makes it very clear that Smith’s fall into the Shambelau’s clutches is a very bad thing, but she also makes it clear that it’s also an intensely pleasurable thing.  And it’s described as the Shambleau caressing and touching Smith’s soul more than his body.  It’s how she feeds, essentially a type of psychic vampire.

Moore also stresses Smith’s internal conflict, attracted by the pleasure and repulsed by the unnaturalness of it.  It’s a struggle he ultimately loses, giving in to the temptation while the whole time being repulsed by his actions.  It’s a struggle that on some level most people can probably relate to.  The desire for something that you know is wrong or harmful, the momentary pleasure of something that will ultimately destroy you.

The imagery is definitely sexual in nature.  While tame by today’s standards, I suspect this was pretty potent stuff back then.  It was certainly powerful to the teenage boy I was when I first read it.  Awash as I was in hormones, this story had a major impact on me.  It was almost like Moore was reading my mind at times as I struggled to understand and contain the natural changes I was undergoing and the accompanying urges.  And while the emotional impact when I reread the story the other night wasn’t nearly that intense, echoes were still there.

The reason “Shambleau” had such an impact on me, and why its popularity and acclaim has endured for over 75 years, is simple.  What Moore deals with here, as I mentioned in a previous paragraph, is something that most people can relate to on some level.  She’s dealing with what it means to be human, what it means to struggle with what’s right and what’s convenient.  Unlike many writers obsessed with their own self-importance, she does it by telling a compelling story, and telling it well.right up to the end.

Much has been made of Moore’s introduction of emotion and sexuality into the science fiction and fantasy fields in the 1930s.  I’m not going to rehash that here.  I have neither the time nor the patience for the literature search.  And I’m certainly not going to get into amateur psychoanalysis, a la L. Sprague de Camp with Robert E. Howard, and try to interpret Moore’s emotional and mental state.  I have too much respect for her to ever do that.

One last bit of trivia.  At one point in the story, Smith hums the tune of a song, “The Green Hills of Earth.”  Robert Heinlein has gone on record saying this was the inspiration of his classic story by that name.

Happy Birthday, Conan.

I’m a little late getting this post up, but this month marks the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Conan, the man from Cimmeria.  Conan first appeared in “The Phoenix on the Sword”, a rewrite of an unsold Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”  I blogged about both pieces here.  That’s the cover of the issue, December 1932, there on the right.  And, no, Conan wasn’t featured on the cover.  But he soon would be.

It’s been a while since I last wrote a piece dedicated solely to Conan.  No, don’t go looking it up; all you’ll do is embarrass people, namely me.  I’m going to look at three more Conan stories, maybe more.  The stories I’ll definitely look at are “Rogues in the House”, “Queen of the Black Coast”, and “Red Nails.”  There are a few other Conan tales I will try to get to, but those three are, in my mind at least, major stories that every Howard fan should read.

Howard wrote that Conan seemed to spring into his mind as a fully fleshed character.  There’s good evidence that wasn’t literally the case.  Still, Conan is arguably the most fully fleshed out character Howard put to paper.  The world he inhabits is by far the most complex and detailed of any Howard created.  Mark Finn argues in his biography, Blood and Thunder (reviewed here), that Conan was the most commercial of Howard’s Weird Tales creations.  He makes a good case.  Whether or not Finn is correct, it was Conan and the classic tales in which he appeared that gave us those gorgeous Margaret Brundage covers.

Conan was the first Howard I read.  As a result, he holds a special place in my heart.  I was a freshman in college when I started reading Conan, in the Ace reprints of the de Camp and Carter edited Lancers.  I soaked it all in.  When I think of sword and sorcery, Conan is usually what comes to mind.  A loner who lives by his own code in an exotic world filled with danger, monsters, and magic.  Along with a few scantily clad females.

A lot of the appeal for me of the Conan stories are the fact that they are stand-alones.  Yes, there are some that obviously take place later in Conan’s life, but for the most part they can be read in any order.  Whether you read a whole volume at once or only a single tale, these stories still take me to a land of adventure. 

This is the mental template I have for a sword and sorcery character or series.  Self contained adventures full of the exotic and wonderful with a dash of horror, where the swords are fast, the magic is dark, and the heroes are both larger than life and flawed.  And anything is possible.

These are the qualities I look for in sword and sorcery.  Fortunately those qualities are still around.  So happy 80th, Conan.  Here’s wishing you many more.

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.

Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Hawks

This year marks a number of anniversaries in Robert E. Howard fandom:  25 years of Howard Days in Cross Plains, 50 years since the first publication of Glenn Lord’s The Howard Collector, 75 years of Robert E. Howard’s Legacy, and 100 years since the founding of Cross Plains.  In addition to these, this year is the 40th anniversary of Marvel Comics bringing Conan to comics and the 45th year since the Lancer publication of Conan the Adventurer.  It’s the last that’s of interest to us in this post. 

Or to be more precise, it’s the stories that L. Sprague de Camp either finished or rewrote that we’re going to take a look at.  Specifically, “Hawks Over Shem”, which was a rewrite of an unsold historical adventure entitled “Hawks Over Egypt”.  Those of you who are familiar with the Lancer (later Ace) editions might be saying, “Wait a minute, that story is in Conan the Freebooter“, and you’d be correct.

I was reading “Hawks Over Egypt”, remembered it was one of the stories de Camp had rewritten, and thought a post about the changes he’d made might be of interest to some of you, especially since this was the 45th anniversary of the Lancer editions.

So let’s take a look at what de Camp changed.  As you might suspect, there will be spoilers.

“Hawks Over Egypt” is currently available in the Del Rey collection Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures as  well as Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient (The Works of Robert E. Howard) from Bison Books. 

The story was probably written in 1932 or 1933, although I’ve not found a definite date (if I do I’ll correct this post).  Howard had been submitting, and selling, his historical adventures to Oriental Stories (later renamed Magic Carpet), but the Depression put an end to that publication in 1933, with the last issue being January 1934. 

The story as Howard originally wrote it had seven numbered chapters.  In the first chapter, two men have an encounter in a dark alley in Cairo.  The Turk, Al Afdhal, accuses the Moor of following him. The Moor denies it, and the men are about to come to blows when they are set upon by three Sudanese, who are looking for one of them, Al Afdhal as it turns out.  The largest of the three attacks the Moor, who quickly dispatches him and intervenes to save the Turk.  They retire to an illegal tavern.  The caliph has banned the sale and consumption of alcohol.  (An echo of Prohibition, perhaps?)  There Al Afdhal reveals that he knows the Moor isn’t a Moor but a Christian.  The supposed Moor turns out to be Diego de Guzman, and he’s in town looking to settle a score with one Zahir el Gazi, who is currently on of the three general helping the caliph, Al Hakim, maintain his reign of terror on the city.  The other two are the Sudani Othman and the Turk Es Salih Muhammad.  The chapter ends with Al Afdhal pledging his help to de Guzman.

The second chapter finds a woman, Zaida, roaming the streets.  This is an offense punishable by death.  Al Hakim is mad and has decreed that women should not be out, day or night.  Zaida has no choice.  She was the mistress of el Gazi until he tired of her and turned her out.  She encounters a cloaked man who turns out to be the caliph, prowling the streets to see if his edicts are being obeyed.  In order to save her life, Zaida convinces him he is the embodiment of Allah.  (This isn’t hard to do.)  To reward her for being the first to recognize his divinity, she becomes his new consort, replacing a very jealous woman named Zulaikha.

In Howard’s version he opens Chapter 3 with a description of what the world political situation is like in the year of the story, 1021.  This type of infodump was a common practice in those days, especially in historical fiction.  It served in this case to give insight into the motivation of some of the characters in what follows without interrupting the action later.  The chapter proceeds with Al Afdhal leading de Guzman through a secret tunnel into the former palace of Es Salih Muhammad, which is now occupied by el Gazi since he has risen in the caliph’s favor above Muhammad.  After killing a guard, they find the el Gazi alone.  De Guzman engages him in a sword fight, eventually killing him, but not before el Gazi brags of the caliph’s plans to form an army and invade Spain.  De Guzman knows Spain is too fractured politically to be able to defend itself against a united attack.  He makes it his mission to stop Al Hakim.  The only way to do this is to kill him, since he’s mad.

In Chapter 4, the city of Cairo erupts in rioting after Al Hakim proclaims himself God.  De Guzman listens in on the talk and rumor and decides the best way to get to Al Hakim is through Zulaikha, who is furious over being deposed by Zaida.  He goes in search of her.

Meanwhile in Chapter 5, Al Hakim decides its beneath his godhood to mate with a mortal and gives Zaida to Othman.  While taking Zaida back to his palace, Othman is confronted by Zulaikha, who buys Zaida from him with the added incentive of threatening to tell el Gazi’s followers that Othman killed el Gazi.

Chapter 6 finds Zulaikha torturing Zaida.  Othman bursts in, kills Zulaikha.  De Guzman enters at this point, sees a black man attacking a white woman, and kills Othman.  He releases Zaida from her bonds but shows no further interest in her, even though she’s beautiful, tied down, and naked.  He’s that bent on stopping the invasion of Spain.  Al Afdhal shows up, and de Guzman reveals that he’s known the man to be the third general, Es Salih Muhammad.  De Guzman manages to convince Muhammad to kill Al Hakim, forgo the invasion, and rule Cairo as the caliph. 

Chapter 7 is fairly short.  Zaida makes her way back to Al Hakim, convinces him she’s leading him to safety, and stabs him.  De Guzman and Muhammad take over the city.

That’s the story as Howard basically wrote it.  My synopsis doesn’t do it justice.  It’s more detailed and complex than I’ve made it sound.  In the interest of length, I’ve only hit the high points and have left out some minor plot elements.

So now let’s look at what de Camp did to make the story a Conan story.  Although he has his defenders, primarily Gary Romeo, de Camp has taken a huge amount of flack over the years because of his heavy handed editing and revision of Howard and for his Howard biography Dark Valley Destiny.  The bulk of this controversy is outside the scope of this essay.

What we want to look at here is how de Camp changed “Hawks Over Egypt” when he rewrote it as “Hawks Over Shem” to make it a Conan story.  It was the lead story in the Conan the Freebooter.  There are enough characters in this tale that I’m not going to give the names of any other than Conan simply to keep things from getting too confusing.

There are no chapter breaks in the rewrite.  Instead there are merely line breaks denoting scene changes.  Also, the historical summary of  1021 has been deleted, which is not surprising since Conan’s world isn’t the real world, only an imaginary analogy.  At least de Camp didn’t try to rewrite that portion.

One of the first changes is in the opening scene, when instead of about to fight, the man who turns about to be Conan (de Guzman in the original), has beaten his opponent without killing him.  They are then set upon by not three but four Kushites.  I guess de Camp added the fourth to show what a badass Conan is.  This causes de Camp to rewrite that part of the fight.

Here’s a small part of  Howard’s original version.  De Guzman “…did not await the attack.  With a snarling oath, he ran at the approaching colossus and slashed furiously at his head.  The black man caught the stroke on his uplifted blade, and grunted beneath the impact.  But the next instant, with a crafty twist and wrench, he had locked the Moor’s blade under his guard and torn the weapon from his opponent’s hand, to fall ringing on the stones.  A searing curse ripped from [de Guzman’s] lips.  He had not expected to encounter such a combination of skill and brute strength.  But fired to fighting madness, he did not hesitate.  Even as the giant swept the broad scimitar aloft, the Moor sprang in under his lifted arm, shouting a wild war-cry, and drove his poniard to the hilt in the negro’s broad breast.”

And here’s a bit of de Camp, when Conan dispatches the second attacker, the one that matches the description of the attacker in the original:  “As the stranger struck, so did the giant, with a long forehand sweep that should have cut the stranger in two at the waist.  But, despite his size, the stranger moved even faster than the blade as it hissed through the night air.  He dropped to the ground in a crouch so that the scimitar passed over him.  As he squatted in front of his antagonist, he struck at the black’s legs.  The blade bit into muscle and bone.  As the black reeled on his wounded leg and swung his sword up for another slash, the stranger sprung up and in, under the lifted arm and drove his blade to the hilt in the Negro’s chest.”

See the similarities?  You do?  What have you been smoking?  It’s not even the same fight.  De Camp does have the fight end with a paraphrase Howard’s words, but everything that came before was completely rewritten. 

And it didn’t have to be!  There was absolutely nothing wrong with Howard’s prose.  It flowed, it pulled the reader in, it was good.  De Camp’s isn’t bad, but Howard’s was better.  And why add an opponent to the fight?  It didn’t serve any purpose as far as plot is concerned.

In the interest of time, I won’t detail all the changes.  Some of them were necessary to change the setting of the story from the real world to the Hyborian world. Others were completely unnecessary or inconsistent with Conan’s character.  For instance, the el Gazi character in both stories sets events in motion with an ambush.  De Guzman survives and is taken prisoner, only managing to obtain his freedom and come to Cairo a few years later.  Conan feigns death on the battlefield and trots into town a few months after the ambush.  Conan?  Playing dead on a battlefield?  Give me a break.

The scenes with Zaida are placed in the text in a different order.  She is also present when Conan and the Al Adfhar character burst in on the el Gazi character but escapes.  She wasn’t present in the original.  De Camp placed her here to give Conan motivation for staying after he extracts his revenge.  He wants to claim her as his own.  Conan would have no interest in stopping an invasion and most likely would have signed on to fight.

The biggest change is in the ending.  The Zulaikha stand-in is a witch in de Camp’s version.  She is summoning up some sort of creature when she’s killed.  The fight that follows between Conan and the Othman character ends not with Conan killing him, but with a creature of smoke rising up and enveloping him, draining the blood and bones from his body.  Blood sucking smoke monsters aren’t that original; Howard would have done better.  Conan frees the girl he has come there to find.  She wants him to plunder the house and run away with her; he prefers them to stay so he can be co-ruler of the city.  Then the dead body of Zulaikha rises up and runs out of the room.  Conan changes his mind and hits the road.

In the end, the mad caliph isn’t stabbed by the girl he spurned but is instead run off of a tower to his death by a mob.  A complete rewrite by de Camp.  Again, the original ending was better and would have been consistent with Conan.  Not all the villains in the Conan stories are killed by Conan IIRC.

The changes de Camp made to “Hawks Over Egypt” in turning it into a Conan story were pretty substantial.  The plot had to be significantly altered in places to make it work, and there are times when Conan’s character just isn’t all that consistent with the way Howard wrote him.  What’s more, the passages de Camp inserted aren’t as well written as Howard’s.  They tend to stand out in places. 

When de Camp was putting together the Lancer Conan books, there wasn’t much Howard in print, to put it mildly, nor was the possibility of bringing some of Howard’s other work into print a guarantee.  The first Howard boom was still a few years off.  I can understand the temptation to alter some of the unpublished historical adventures to make them Conan stories. Publishing standards in those days tended to demand books that would be considered thin or short by today’s standards.  L. Sprague de Camp was trying to impose an internal chronology on Conan and fill in what he viewed to be gaps.  Such a project would naturally require new content, and the lengths of books publishers were willing to publish mandated more books than the three Del Rey has published..  I can understand that.  I really can.  I just can’t condone it. 

I met the de Camps several times during their last decade and found them both to be cultured, erudite, and easily approachable.  Also, I’ve enjoyed many of de Camp’s original works and wish more were in print.  But I just can’t sanction him taking such liberties with Conan.  The problem with changing a tale set in the historical world and transforming it into a fantasy starring an established character in an imaginary world with its own detailed geography and history is that you have to make so many changes to the plot and/or the characters to make it fit.  If de Guzman had been more Conan-esque, it might have worked in this case.  But a careful reading of both stories will show that de Guzman and Conan aren’t the same; their personalities are too different. 

In my opinion, there hasn’t been anyone who can successfully imitate Howard.  The unique elements that came together to produce the man also produced the writing style.  The two cannot be separated.  So far, no one who has tried has been able to match that style.  I doubt there ever will be anyone who can.  De Camp and Lin Carter certainly couldn’t, and de Camp, despite his butchering of Howard’s prose, was an accomplished writer.  One whose original works were important and should be read today.  Just not his Conan pastiches.  Most people who have read Carter (and I admit I haven’t), at least those I’ve talked to, wouldn’t give him that much credit.

Personally, I prefer the original version of this story, the straight historical.  And that goes for all of Howard’s works that have been changed, edited, or adapted.

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.