Howard Days 2012 — 72 Fun Filled Hours in Cross Plains

Another Howard Days has come and gone, and with it the euphoric high that can only come with 72 plus hours of full immersion in something that you have a true passion for, alongside dozens of others who share your passion and are some of the few people that can truly understand it. This was only my third Howard Days and so I don’t have the larger perspective that many others do, but for me this year’s Howard Days was my favorite. It didn’t have the giddy excitement of my first year or movie-infused madness of last year—but those weren’t necessarily bad things. It was more subdued perhaps, but it also created more opportunities to just hang out with friends new and old and geek out with folks who “get it.”

Actually making it to Cross Plains this year was more challenging than usual due some severely nasty weather that had flights delayed or cancelled. Al Harron and the Scottish Invasion were stuck in the airport for hours and Bill “Indy” Cavalier and his wife Cheryl didn’t get into to town until 4:00 in the morning Friday. Several Howard Days regulars, including Damon Sasser, Frank Coffman, and Ryan Flessing, were absent this year for various reasons and were sorely missed. For me the trip to Howard Days was unusual as well, as I am actually in the middle of a three-week long family vacation as I write this. My wife, the kids, and I had driven from Florida to Maine (yes, driven!) and had rented a lake cabin. So for me Howard Days was a vacation from my vacation as I flew down to Texas from Maine, then back to Maine just in time to drive back down to Florida. Sheesh!

Of course the unofficial kick-off for Howard Days is Thursday night with dinner at Humphrey Pete’s. I got in on Thursday afternoon just in time to hitch a ride to Brownwood with Paul Sammon, Russell Andrew, and Al. I got to talk with (and listen to) Paul more this year than in the past and I have to say that he is one of the most knowledgeable and interesting people in Howard fandom. Paul has had many incredible experiences and has a wonderful outlook and perspective on life in general. I could listen to his stories and anecdotes forever. Al of course is my old TC blog comrade and it’s always great to see him as well as his entourage, the Wyrd sisters. There were more familiar faces when we arrived at Humphrey Pete’s of course: Rob Roehm, Dennis McHaney, Barbara Barrett, Ed Chazcyk, Jim Barron, and several others. Mark Finn showed up not long after we did, as well as Jay Zetterberg from Paradox. I believe Keith West and Scott Valeri were there as well, but I didn’t get a chance to speak with them until later.

After dinner we returned to the pavilion, where Rusty Burke was waiting with the guest of honor Charles Hoffman. I was thrilled to meet Chuck and was fortunate enough to room with him this year, which gave me more an opportunity to pick his brain and hear his amazing stories about his experiences in fandom. It was a true pleasure to meet him and visit with him and I very much hope he will make it back for future Howard Days. Other regulars began to show up at the pavilion too, including Dave Hardy, Chris Gruber, Todd Woods, and Tim Arney. This was the first time I got meet Tim and he was a lot of fun and very knowledgeable. The lovely Aurelia also returned to Howard Days (no doubt due to Al’s charming presence rather than the rest of us troglodytes).

Perhaps the most special visitors of all were there as well: Lou Ann Lord and her family. This was, of course, the first Howard Days after Glenn Lord’s passing and that reality was omnipresent throughout the weekend. I expect that this weekend was Lou Ann’s farewell to Howard fandom, and I believe that she will be moving on knowing just how important Glenn was to all of us and to all we do. None of this would have been possible without Glenn and nothing Glenn ever did would have been possible without the patience and support of Lou Ann.

Friday morning kicked off the first official activities of the weekend, including a bus tour of Cross Plains led by Rusty. Fans and visitors were just beginning to show up as I wandered over to the pavilion fueled by multiple cups of coffee and a deliciously greasy breakfast from Jean’s Feed Barn. Indy was there, having safely arrived the day before and other regulars soon began showing up including Paul Herman, Gary Romero, Ben Friberg, Joe Crawford, Alfred Bonnabel, as well as Chris Fulbright and Angie Hawkes with family in tow. I made my way through the Howard House only to discover a significant new addition: Robert’s own books from Howard Payne University. Apparently, HPU has donated the remainder of the Howard library to the museum and that was a wonderful surprise. Many of them are inscribed to Howard (and in one case by Howard) and being able to go through these volumes looking for things like highlighting or notes in the margin will be a scholar’s dream.

Another treat waited at the Cross Plains library as all of the typescripts in their collection were on display. It was wonderful to see things like a typescript with Steve Costigan whited-out and Dennis Dorgan typed over it. There is nothing quite like the experience of seeing these cultural artifacts with your own eyes.

The first panel was a dedication to Glenn Lord and Paul, Barbara, and Rusty did a wonderful job of celebrating Glenn’s life and work. It was incredibly moving, but never depressing, as it was truly a celebration of a wonderful life. It was hard not to tear up when Lou Ann spoke though and I thought it was truly a magnificent thing that she had come here to share with us fans her memories and experiences of her life’s companion.

The afternoon panels had Al, Paul, and Mark talking about 80 years of Conan. This was a very informative session, as you can imagine with these three guys at the table. This was followed by Charles Hoffman speaking about his article “Conan the Existential” (first published in Amra in 1974 and reprinted many times since) and the early days of Howard scholarship in the 1970’s and 80’s. Charles was also the co-author with Marc Cerasini of the Starmont Reader’s Guide to Robert E. Howard and the editor of the journal Cromlech in the late 1980’s. If you have not yet read “Conan the Existential” you need to seek it out, as it was an incredibly important essay in the history of Howard studies.

Friday evening was the annual banquet at the community center. While there was a good turnout it wasn’t as cramped as last year. The chicken-fried steak was outstanding and I don’t even think Dennis complained. The silent auction had some nice stuff this year too. After dinner Charles gave a very entertaining and insightful speech. After that it was time for the REH Foundation awards—congratulations to all the winners, especially Dennis McHaney who received the highest honor in Howardom: the Black Circle Award for lifetime achievement. The hardest working man in Howard scholarship, Rob Roehm once again took home a stack of well-deserved awards.

After the banquet many folks caravanned to the ice house for a panel by Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, and me on Howard’s boxing stories. It was a nighttime outdoor session with flashlights and it was a whole lot of fun reading excerpts and explaining the importance of boxing to Howard—and to any fan or scholar who wants to better understand Howard and his work.

Then of course it was back to the pavilion for more carousing, poetry reading, lie swappin’, and general ne’er-do-wellery until the wee hours of the morning.

Saturday morning brought a new round of panels, including one in which I was participating. Once again, copious amounts of coffee and Jean’s breakfast of champions got me going. At the library, Charles, Mark, and I discussed the effort to bring Howard’s work into the realm of academic literary criticism. Upcoming projects to keep an eye out for include the revised and updated edition of the Starmont Reader’s Guide by Charles and Marc Cerasini from the Foundation, Conan Meets the Academy from McFarland Press, and a few other works that are in the early stages.

This was followed by a great lunch at the local Mexican joint for REH Foundation Legacy members. Let me throw out a plug here for joining the Foundation at the Legacy level. Not only does your membership fee help support the incredible work that the Foundation does but you also get access to some really cool, one-of-a-kind stuff. Our special bonus this year was a facsimile typescript of a previously unknown draft of “The God in the Bowl” recently found among Glenn Lord’s papers. Membership has its privileges.

After lunch it was back to the library to hear Paul Sammon discuss the history of Conan artwork. Paul’s talks are always enjoyable and informative. He’s an engaging speaker with a never-ending supply of wonderful tales and this panel was no exception. Then it was back to the pavilion for an update on upcoming projects from Paul Herman, Rusty, and Jay. Nothing too earth-shattering was announced. The boxing stories are in the hopper, as are the funny westerns, Celtic stories, and James Allison stories. The film and TV rights to Conan have returned to Paradox, as have the rights to Solomon Kane. Dark Agnes, Kull, and Vultures films are still in production. I got the impression (and it may be mistaken) that things may be slowing down a bit on the film and TV projects after last year’s movie debacle. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. It could be time to pause, take a breath, and reassess the properties and how they can best be represented in an ever-changing media landscape.

As this final panel came to a close it was time to head out to the Caddo Peak Ranch for the traditional barbeque. The food was amazing as always, as was the company. I love the barbeque, but it’s always bittersweet as it means Howard Days is winding down. I passed on the hike up to Caddo peak in order to spend more time visiting with friends. As the sun began to sink, all the members of REHupa past and present lined up for the traditional photo, including the guest of honor Charles Hoffman who was a member many years ago.

As night fell, everyone headed back to the pavilion for one last of night of drinking and shooting the bull. Mark Finn, Al, and I ended up in a RPG game with several fans most of whom were first timers at Howard Days. I had noticed these guys earlier in the weekend as they were all asking very insightful questions during the panels and later at the pavilion. With Mark Carroll gaming and joined by his wife Jennifer and friends Seth, Brad, and Austin, we had a great game going. Unfortunately I had to bow out early as the three days of virtually no sleep was finally starting to catch up with me—maybe I’m getting old. I did manage to wander over to the table where Ed, Dennis, Tim, and Chris were and joined in their animated discussions. Eventually, I had to call it a night though.

Sunday morning, those that were able to crawl out of bed and make it to Jean’s said their goodbyes and farewells. And with that I hit the road to Dallas to catch my plane back to Maine. As I said earlier, for me at least this was my favorite Howard Days. This year I really felt like I was coming home. It felt less like a fan gathering and more like a reunion. I’m still very much a newbie in Howard fandom, but I don’t feel as much like one anymore. That’s a tribute to the great folks involved in this hobby. Yeah, sometimes we can be a cantankerous, curmudgeonly lot, but there are some truly good people in Howard fandom and many gracious and welcoming folks in Cross Plains. If you’re a Howard fan and have never been to Howard Days, what the heck are you waiting for? Save up your shekels and just do it. It will be an amazing experience and you will make some great new friends that share the same passion for this pulp writer from a small town in Texas. Hope to see y’all next year at Humphrey Pete’s or under the pavilion.