A Trip to Howard Days 2016

Another enjoyable Howard Days has come and gone, and it is safe to say that any who attended were glad they did.  The number of attendees on June 10th and 11th seemed to be a bit above average, reflecting a trend toward straining the capacity of current venues and program formats.  The panel audiences are already larger than could be served by formerly used facilities like the Cross Plains Library and the Howard House Pavilion.  Panels this year were held at the CP High School and the CP Senior Center.  Many new faces were evident at the banquet in the Community Center.  The weather was hot but otherwise pleasant, though mosquito repellent was sometimes required.

The day before the festivities began, the staff of the Cross Plains Review newspaper kindly offered a tour of their old facilities, complete with antique printing press and other equipment.  Original copies of editions containing articles about or by Robert E. Howard were on display.

On Friday, following the bus tour of the CP area hosted by Project Pride veteran Don Clark, a panel composed of Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, and Susan McNeel-Childers discussed the first 30 years of Howard Days celebrations.  REHupans Burke and Vern Clark made an initial foray to Cross Plains in 1985.  Impressed by the wide open spaces of Texas and even more by how imaginative Howard must have been to have envisioned stories in such settings, Burke thought that other serious fans might be lured to visit Cross Plains, and so organized a trip there the next year by ten REHupans, including Cavalier and Glenn Lord.  The Friends of the Library, headed by Joan McCowen, gave a gracious reception to those they called international scholars on June 6th, which the mayor proclaimed to be “Robert Howard Day.”  Those the visitors talked to included Cross Plains Review editor Jack Scott, head librarian Billie Ruth Loving, REH heirs Alla Ray Kuykendall and Alla Ray Morris, and Charlotte Laughlin of Howard Payne University in Brownwood.  Laughlin would act to preserve what remained of REH’s personal book collection that his father had donated to HPU and which now resides in the Howard House.  Seeing the commercial possibilities in attracting more such visitors, the founding members of Project Pride (originally created to spruce up the downtown area of Cross Plains) bought the Howard House in 1989, which Project Pride then renovated and operated as a museum with the aid of donations.  Alla Ray Morris contributed $10,000 to Project Pride just before her death in 1995. The money was used to install central heat and air conditioning and to remodel the inside of the house. Project Pride also received a portion of Alla Ray’s estate and that money was used to build the pavilion next to the house and finish the remodeling. The pavilion was completed in 2000 and dedicated to Alla Ray. By that time Howard Days had become an annual 2-day event organized by Project Pride and REHupa, who have done so much to welcome and educate fans of the Texas author and to change the once-low opinion of many of the residents regarding Howard and his admirers.

Guest of Honor Michael Scott Myers spoke at the banquet and was interviewed by REHupan Mark Finn at a Friday panel marking the 20th anniversary of the film The Whole Wide World, which Myers had adapted from the memoir One Who Walked Alone, written by Howard’s sometime girlfriend Novalyne Price Ellis.  Myers was a speech student of Ellis during her last years at Louisiana State University.  As a movie publicist, Myers saw the potential in making a small independent film based on her book, but many individual factors have to align before such a movie can be made.  Myers optioned the book for $20 and wrote the script between 1989 and 1994.  Director Dan Ireland and the actor portraying REH, Vincent D’Onofrio were on board early on.  Replacing actress Olivia d’Abo, who had become pregnant, in Novalyne’s part was Renee Zellweger in her first major role.  TWWW was filmed over 3 and a half weeks in the summer of 1996 for $1.2M.  While it did well at the Sundance Film Festival, an unfavorable release date held the film back until positive reviews led to its success on home video and cable TV.  It served as many people’s introduction to REH, and the film helped to bring a less narrow, more nuanced, and very human portrayal of the author to the fan public.  Ellis did see and enjoy the movie.  After the interview, TWWW was screened in the high school auditorium.

The Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards were bestowed Friday afternoon.  The winners are spotlighted elsewhere on this blog.

REHupans Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, and Jeffrey Shanks staged another of their always entertaining “Fists at the Ice House” presentations outdoors at the site where Howard boxed with his friends and locals.  This sport, REH’s part in it, and his boxing fiction were the subjects.  Experts on these stories, the speakers recommended them highly to all.  Even if one is not into the sport, the surprisingly good humor of the yarns will be enough to get one through them.  And Howard’s enthusiasm and versatility shed light on important aspects of the author’s personality that one might have no clue about if one is familiar only with his fantasy tales.  Howard’s boxing and boxing stories served as vital releases for the pressures and frustrations that were dogging him at the time.

The first panel on Saturday concerned REH and artist Frank Frazetta, who painted the covers of most of the Lancer Conan paperbacks of the late 1960s which did so much to attract readers to Howard’s fiction.  The panelists were REHupans Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, Gary Romeo, and Jeff Shanks.  Cavalier called the publication of Conan the Adventurer the single most significant event in the history of Howard publishing and the one that drew him in personally.  Shanks noted that this was the 50th anniversary of that event.  Frazetta had illustrated comic books, but it was his covers of Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks that got him noticed.  Frazetta’s artistic resonance with the material made for an impressive product that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Burke said that the Conan stories had come out earlier in book form as Arkham House and Gnome Press hardbacks.  Writer L. Sprague de Camp was a fan of REH and, working with agent Oscar Friend, took on the editing of the Conan reprints.  Romeo explained that de Camp assiduously shopped the stories to publishers, finally hooking Lancer’s Larry Shaw, as well as Frazetta by letting him keep the ownership of his art.  Romeo thinks that Frazetta’s art was a big part of Conan’s appeal, but not as much as the prose itself.  Burke added that, though you can’t judge a book by its cover, the cover can be important in providing an essential good first impression of and introduction to the character.  Shanks observed that, even though the images were static, Frazetta’s dynamic, exciting poses were a game changer for fantastic art.

The Lancer paperbacks sold in the millions, the like of which had never been seen before, and their success was possible because they appeared at just the right time culturally.  Romeo remarked that Frazetta’s Conan posters also sold very well, though Frazetta had to drop the Conan name off them for legal reasons.  But more is involved in running a business than marketing, and so, despite the success of the paperbacks, Lancer went bankrupt and sold out to a publisher who continued to issue them under the imprints of Sphere in the UK and Ace in the US.  Burke noted that de Camp’s main idea was to organize the stories by chronological order in Conan’s career, though this was just an extension of P. Schuyler Miller and John Clark’s ordering in the Gnome books.  Perhaps de Camp saw Conan’s career as a uniquely American rags-to-riches story.  Romeo commented that this probably contributed to their commercial success, carrying over into other media like comics.  Glenn Lord, agent for the Howard heirs, had acquired the contents of REH’s legendary trunk, and he allowed de Camp to finish some story fragments and to adapt some non-Conan stories as Conan tales.  Romeo added that, while de Camp edited the Weird Tales versions relatively little, he did change the other stories enough to preserve his legal claim to them.  De Camp and Lin Carter later put out Conan pastiches.

Shanks announced that he had just procured Frazetta’s granddaughter Sara Frazetta Taylor as a commentator, and he brought her in on a Skype connection from the convention she was attending.  Sara said she loved how pure and childlike Frazetta’s enthusiasm for Howard was, and she has been moved by the impact Frazetta’s art has had on so many lives.  She and her mother sell Frazetta art online at frazettagirls.com.  Frazetta drew and painted up to the last day of his life, despite his having been disabled by a stroke.  There has been some legal wrangling over the rights to his art by his children, but about a quarter of it may be viewed at the movie director Richard Rodriguez’s mansion in Austin and another quarter is accessible in East Stroudsburg, Pa.; more showings are planned for New York City.  Shanks said that the first seven-figure sale of a Frazetta painting was one bought the lead guitarist of Metallica, and his art has appeared on other album covers, notably Molly Hatchet.

The next panel, “The Life of REH,” consisted of Finn, REHupan Patrice Louinet, and Paul Herman.  Finn noted that Howard wrote 300 stories and over 800 poems in just 12 years.  Gruber said that reading the 10 years of REH’s correspondence with his friend Tevis Clyde Smith gave him renewed respect for their sense of humor, the trust they had for one another, and the use of each other as a sounding board to help build their self-confidence.  Louinet thinks that Howard reveals much about his own life in his boxing stories.  Louinet found that REH’s dog Patch died in 1927 or 1928, earlier than previously believed, as he pursued the question of whether character Sailor Costigan’s dog Mike had a basis in Patch.  Herman observed that, even though Howard’s outlook in life seems very dark in the Conan and Solomon Kane tales, Herman’s own research into REH’s correspondence shows that he had a marvelous sense of humor and had many other aspects to his personality, as is also evident in his other stories such as those about boxing and adventure.  Howard didn’t try to fit in well with his social milieu because, like some people, he had no interest in conforming to the standards of those he didn’t respect.

Finn warned that one does have to take what REH says in his letters with a grain of salt because he was a storyteller and exaggerator by nature.  In “The God in the Bowl,” Conan insists he is a citizen with rights, echoing a discussion Howard had with H. P. Lovecraft in a letter a few months earlier.  Louinet noted that REH talked about policemen beating a black man to death in a letter to Smith a few days before writing that story, which concerns similar police actions.  Finn said that Howard did put much of his life and his ruminations into his letters as he processed new information.  Gruber added that Howard was curious and intellectually adaptable, playing to whatever person he was communicating with as they discussed and sometimes argued about books and current events.  Finn said that REH’s letters to Lovecraft start out formal and respectful, but gradually become more discursive and dissenting as he felt he got HPL’s measure and that he was more of HPL’s intellectual equal.  And it’s a myth that Howard didn’t travel much; he did so whenever he could.  Herman pointed out that, in virtually every story, the protagonist is not at home and has no family, as though REH himself thought that all excitement in life lay away from home.  Louinet said that he concluded, in his REH:TGR Blog entry “Long Road to Dark Valley,” that Dr. Howard didn’t have to take Hester to Peaster for better medical care because he already lived there, and the family probably never did live in Dark Valley.  More details about this matter will be forthcoming.

Finn said that the stresses that were piling up on REH as his mother was dying are evident in his letters to Derleth, Lovecraft, and Torbett, though he was too stoical to address the matter directly.  Herman remarked that Howard’s grim outlook in life and predilection for suicide had always been clear from his poetry.  REH didn’t take his life in response to his mother’s death; he was holding on to life until he knew she was going to die and his help was no longer needed.  According to Finn, none of his friends expected his suicide because everything Howard said was so grandiloquent and exaggerated that no one took him seriously.  Herman added that Dr. Howard did get rid of all the guns in the house, forcing REH to borrow one from his friend David Lee.  Gruber observed that Howard’s overreaction to the misfire of his joke about his dating Smith’s girlfriend reveals how depressed he was about his life and his belief that people should not live until they are old and weak unless they have some cause worth living for.  Herman concluded that, though there are many theories about why he took his own life, it may just be a case of genetics, late birth, or different mental wiring, a process of elimination that may even be good for humans generally, as proposed in Steve Silberman’s book Neurotribes.

Finishing up the panels was one called “The First Annual Glenn Lord REH Symposium,” which was a sampler of recent research papers presented by up-and-coming Howard scholars originally presented at Popular Culture Association and similar academic conferences.  Such papers are often subsequently published in literary journals or conference proceedings, serving to advance the reputation of the Texas author.  Up first was Jonas Prida of the College of St. Joseph, who read his “Antebellum Antecedents: Old Southwest Humor and Breckinridge Elkins.”  Prida thinks that REH’s voice and opinions are most evident in his Elkins yarns, and these probably grew out of the writings of those on the Southwestern frontier from Arkansas to Texas, which developed a mythology based on fighting and competition.  “The Fight,” by Georgia author Augustus Longstreet (1790-1870), is similar to Elkins’s violent tall tales.  The most famous work of North Carolinian Johnson Jones Hooper (1815-1862) is the cynical book Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, in which the most despicable characters fare the best.  George Washington Harris (1814-1869), another Southern comic writer, is perhaps the one whose style is most like Howard’s.  Regional dialect, like that of Elkins, is employed by all these writers.

REHupan Todd Vick was next with a paper that looked at traditional heroic tales, more modern anti-heroic stories, and finally the Conan canon.  He found that Conan’s roles are much more anti-heroic than heroic, despite his usual characterization as a hero.  Unlike a traditional hero, who generally undertakes a journey of learning and struggle that results in a triumph for the good of the people, an anti-hero is not interested in respecting authority or improving society, but acts according to his self-serving needs and nihilistic beliefs.  Conan is generally portrayed as an anti-heroic outcast, putting him 35 or 40 years ahead of his time as a character.

Dierk Guenther from Tokushima University spoke on the “Pseudo-History and Reincarnation in Robert E. Howard’s Fantastic Fiction.”  The temporal settings in pre-REH fantasy were generally either a fictional European medieval age (e.g. Morris), some static present (Haggard or Burroughs), or some projected future (H. G. Wells).  Howard, for the first time, sub-created a mythical age based on history and science, but predating the known world.  This template helped him avoid historical inconsistencies, but required knowledge and planning that definitely elevated him above the average writer.  REH’s character James Allison remembers his past reincarnations, even future ones, making him more realistic and authentic because he explains himself in the context of passing time.

Dan Look of St. Lawrence University used software to perform stylometric analyses of the text of Howard’s Almuric in an attempt to determine who completed the unfinished novel.  Look focused on the numerical frequency of short “function” words, which he thinks is most objective and revelatory about the likely author of text samples when compared to texts of known authorship.  Look compared the ending of Almuric to texts by REH, Otis Adelbert Kline, Farnsworth Wright, Henry Kuttner, E. Hoffmann Price, and Otto Binder, finding that Howard was as likely to be the author as any of the others, but he acknowledged that other types of stylometric analysis might give different results.

The festivities concluded with the traditional barbecue and a poetry reading, the latter featuring the recitation of the poem “Cimmeria” in six different languages.  This installment of Howard Days was yet another satisfying entry in a series dedicated to an increasingly numerous and sophisticated fandom of the Texas writer.

Photos courtesy Rusty Burke, Ed Chaczyk, Ben Friberg and Todd Vick