Howard Days 2014: Now a Part of Howard History

Howard Days 2014 was another great success. Temperatures were quite moderate, though there was a hailstorm around Abilene that seriously damaged Chris Gruber’s car. There were many new faces there this year, evidently because of increased promotion on social media sites spearheaded by Jeff Shanks.

The theme this year was Howard History: Texas and Beyond. During the first panel, “In the Guise of Fiction,” Shanks and Al Harron discussed REH’s use of early history. Shanks said that Howard’s stories utilized the anthropological theory favored at the time, involving racial templates now known to pseudoscientific. REH was also inspired by Haggard and Burroughs, who were popular then. Harron opined that the Picts were Howard’s greatest creation, appearing in more different types of stories, both fantastic and historical, than any other of his creations. Historical fiction, e.g. by Mundy and Lamb, was quite popular. REH loved it and wrote as much as would sell, but he put a gritty, bloody spin on it that was more colorful and realistic than that of other authors. Shanks mentioned that Howard employed Wells’s The Outline of History and as many other authoritative references as he had access to. His first goal was to get into the adventure pulps, but he often had to add a weird element to sell his stories; this practice peaked with his submissions to Oriental Tales and Weird Tales. Harron said Conan incorporated historical and fantastic elements. Cormac Fitzgeoffrey is Harron’s favorite Crusades character. Shanks said that REH pioneered a dark, cynical, violent interpretation of history, which has made the stories age well and resonate with today’s readers, unlike a lot of other writers such as Doyle. But historical fiction requires a lot of research, so he set Kull and Conan in an earlier, hypothetical Hyborian Age that freed up Howard to write his own kind of fiction. Harron stated that “Shadow of the Vulture” starring Red Sonya was another groundbreaking character, being a strong female protagonist and warrior, with no romantic links to other characters. It was also anchored in historical characters and settings. Harron’s favorite female character is Dark Agnes, especially in “Sword Woman.” She is unique in having an origin story, though REH only able to get Red Sonya published. He and C. L. Moore conceived of their strong heroines independently. Shanks said that Howard was influenced in his historical fiction by Arthur Macon’s dark stories about fairies portrayed as malevolent little people. He said that REH did a lot of anthropological world-building, incorporating migrations which turned out to be very important historically, as we know now. Howard was also doing westerns, historical and weird, near the end. An audience member added that REH admired Jack London and may have just been emulating London’s racial theories, though these were somewhat behind anthropological theory of the time, however popular they were then. Another person pointed out how the race Howard regarded as superior changed with time and publishing venue.

In an interview by Rusty Burke, Guest of Honor Patrice Louinet said that he first got interested in REH through French translations of Marvel comics. He was the first to do pre-doctoral and doctoral theses based on Howard. He visited the U.S. to do the associated research, joined REHupa, and met legendary Howard scholar and collector Glenn Lord, who got him interested in examining REH’s typescripts of stories and letters. He found he could date transcripts from typewriter artifacts and REH’s idiosyncratic spellings. Burke also led him into looking at the Conan typescripts and recommended him to be editor of the Wandering Star Conan pure-text editions. The time-ordering of Howard’s stories is critical to understanding him as a writer, which is also why reading the Conan tales in the order they were written (as in the WS books) is so revelatory. Dating the transcripts was essential to determining which were the most authoritative versions to use in the pure-text books. Thus, there would be no de Campian Conan saga. REH used Conan as a catalyst to the plot and to tell the kind of story he wanted to tell. Louinet’s first professional publication was “The Birth of Conan” in The Dark Man. Reading Howard in English made him realize how bad the existing French translations were, so he started translating the stories himself. He thinks that Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright’s suggestions often improved REH’s stories. Louinet is now working on a documentary on REH and is a consultant on a Howard-related board game. He has done many interviews about REH, including ones on television. He won a Special Award from France’s Imaginales (Imaginary World) Convention for his Howard work. He has published 10 REH books in France and has another one coming out. In France, Howard was a cult figure in the ‘80s, was forgotten in the ‘90s, and is now popular and recognized as a pioneer fantasist. Lovecraft started becoming mainstream there in the ‘60s and has been helped by a Cthulhu video game. Clark Ashton Smith is unknown. The French do not like westerns. Working as a translator gave Louinet the most insight into REH’s maturation as a writer. Howard’s earlier work is bursting with ideas, but he later learned how to control that without losing anything. “The Dark Man” and “Kings of the Night” of 1930 are about when he became a mature writer. Louinet plans to do another doctoral dissertation on REH.

The Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards were given to: (1) Jeff Shanks for the Outstanding Print Essay “History, Horror, and Heroic Fantasy: Robert E. Howard and the Creation of the Sword and Sorcery Subgenre”; (2) Bill Cavalier, Rob Roehm, and Paul Herman for the Outstanding Periodical The REH Foundation Newsletter; (3) Brian Leno, Patrice Louinet, Rob Roehm, Damon Sasser, and Keith Taylor for the Outstanding Web Site REH: Two-Gun Raconteur; (4) Rob Roehm for the Outstanding Online Essay “The Business”; (5) Patrick Burger as Emerging Scholar; (6) Ben Friberg for the Outstanding Achievement of filming REH Days panels, as he was doing for this event and selling DVDs of last year’s; (7) Tom Gianni for Artistic Achievement; (8) Patrice Louinet for Lifetime Achievement; and (9) Paul Herman for Outstanding Service. Karl Edward Wagner is next year’s nominee for Lifetime Achievement.

At the banquet, Project Pride stalwart Arlene Stevenson announced that PP had spent $8,000 performing needed repairs to the Howard House and thanked all those who had contributed to them.

During his banquet speech “By This Accent, I Rule! The Frenchman Is in Cross Plains,” Louinet described what drew him to Howard, how he was able to use academic thesis funds to travel to Texas, and how friendly everyone was to him there. After his stint in REHupa and his work on the REH typescripts, Burke enlisted him to edit the Wandering Star Conan books. Louinet went on to translate and edit almost as many books as Burke has edited, fixing a lot of poor French translations. He has promoted Howard in many interviews and assiduously corrected other people to ensure that REH and his characters are portrayed accurately in French media. All this has helped make Howard as highly regarded in France as Tolkien as a pioneer of fantasy, when previously REH was not thought of as a significant writer, if he was known at all.

Mark Finn, Gruber, Shanks, and Louinet then gave the on-site talk “Fists at the Ice House” on Howard and his boxing yarns, one of the most popular events there and one that has run for about 20 years.

The next day, Jim Reasoner and Dave Hardy were panelists for “The Legend Continues” about REH’s use of recent history, e.g. westerns and the Middle East adventures. There were some similarities and differences between them. Francis “El Borak” Gordon is an American gunslinger in the Wild East who doesn’t act and talk like a Texan, but who is nonetheless an ardent individualist. Hardy insisted that the Gordon oeuvre is a lot better than simply a mash-up of Max Brand and Kipling. He discussed historical figures who might have served as inspirations for El Borak. Howard was still learning his craft when he started writing the character, almost pastiching Haggard. As he matured, the stories became more polished and El Borak becomes less interested in financial gain than in righting wrongs and being true to his friends. There’s a lot of real history in the El Borak Stories, starting with “The Lost Valley of Iskander” about a lost colony of Alexander the Great’s soldiers. It corporates lost tribes, fist and sword fights, and international Great Game power politics. “Son of the White Wolf” includes the most recent Middle Eastern politics, such as that involving Lawrence of Arabia, showing REH’s reactions to what was going on around him, as he also did in his commentaries in the letters he wrote to Lovecraft. Reasoner said that REH studied the publishing markets available to him, but also was always trying new things, as with El Borak as well as his westerns, such as employing historical characters like Hendry Brown (as Steve Corcoran), but adding a darker, grimmer take than is usual with westerns. “Wild Water” is grounded in Howard’s local contemporary history, namely the filling of Lake Brownwood. It’s one of his best, most underrated stories. “Beyond the Black River” is actually a western, with the Black River standing in as the Brazos River. “Marchers of Valhalla” uses lost races and much local geography and ancient history of Texas. The Shamla Pass in “Black Colossus” is a dead ringer for Texas’s Caprock. Lincoln, N.M. and its history involving Billy the Kid were probably the inspiration for “Red Nails,” a claustrophobic tale about lost tribes. The historical and geographical backgrounds add much realism and immediacy in spite of the fact that many stories are technically fantasies, helping to elevate characters like Conan above those of other writers. As to what REH would have done had he lived, Reasoner thinks he would have gone on to be a great western author, writing a lot about the history of the Old West. “Spanish Gold on Devil Horse” also incorporates local history and geography. “Vultures of Whapeton” was about 15 years ahead of its time, with no heroes and being a lot darker and hard-boiled than other westerns of the time. Howard probably would have written more like it if there had been a market for it. But as the Depression progressed, the country’s mood darkened and readers became more accepting of realistic fiction, such as hard-boiled mysteries.

In their panel “Fists of Iron,” Louinet, Finn, Gruber, and Gianni talked about the REH Foundation project publishing all the boxing fiction, starting 4 or 5 years ago. In the 1920s, Howard began writing boxing stories. Louinet and Leo Grin started working with the boxing typescripts. Louinet wanted to put out authoritative editions, working with Finn and Gruber. Gruber insisted on a first-rate, professional effort, just as with the Conan stories, and the others agreed. It was often difficult to locate the most authoritative sources, e.g. because some typescripts were privately owned, and new ones kept turning up from Glenn Lord. Louinet, Finn, and Gruber not only consulted with each other intensively, they created demand with such events as “Fists at the Ice House.” REH didn’t number his pages, so it was difficult to match them with stories and find where they fitted. Howard even reused some material. Story versions changed as more pages were discovered. Jim Keegan, art director for the project, enlisted Gianni as illustrator. Gianni researched boxing and often got his visual inspirations from boxing movies. Pulp art was also a big influence on him, especially Baumhofer. Finn declared that one can’t have a complete picture of who REH was unless one considers his boxing stories. About a third of Howard’s output was humorous stories, whether boxing or western. He wrote boxing yarns throughout his career. Gruber said they show REH to be the quintessential American author, because so many Americans enjoyed boxing during his lifetime. Finn said that while Howard’s fantasy can be polarizing because of, say, racialism, his boxing stories do not contain such controversial themes and are, thus, likely to be appealing to more people. Now that all these stories are becoming available, they can start to be looked at critically and REH can finally be given proper credit for them; they can now be put on a similar level with, and be published alongside, great sports stories by other authors. Gianni talked about how he finds subjects as reference models and how he comes up with the composition and color scheme of his oil paintings.

In the panel “What’s up with REH?,” Burke noted that The Collected Poetry would be reprinted. Fred Malmberg has left Paradox, but is still on the REH Foundation Board as a consultant. Rounds 3 and 4 of Fists of Iron are in production. Biographical writings like Post Oaks and Sand Roughs and books on Cormac Mac Art, Vikings, etc. are in process. Shanks has edited literary criticism on Weird Tales stories that includes a contribution by Louinet, with a section on Howard, as part of a series edited by S. T. Joshi. The new Conan movie Iron Shadows is a low-budget adaptation produced by George Tan which seems like it will be faithful.

Regarding REH’s world-building, Burke said Tolkien has long been given credit for subcreation of fantasy worlds, but Howard at least a dozen years earlier had started doing that with “Men of the Shadows” of 1926. He had just started thinking about the world as being incredibly ancient, with Picts as the first humans, in accordance with Theosophy’s theory about root races. From that came the Hyborian Age and all the stories thereof. Shanks said REH wasn’t just creating a fantasy-world geography, but was anthropologically world-building using different “races” that he was telling the history of, e.g. Picts, Atlanteans, Lemurians, Celts, etc. over millennia and how they migrated and came into conflict, while suffering from the effects of geological cataclysms. Tolkien built his worlds based on linguistics, while REH built his based on humanity, and he was just as complex a world-builder. Tolkien said a writer has to gain unwilling suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader by being as realistic and consistent as possible. This is what Howard was doing, and it’s why his Conan stories are so immersive. Burke observed that, while Tolkien had a lot of time to get things right, REH was doing it on the fly to make a living, yet he got very little wrong. Shanks said that Howard put much work and thought into it, as shown by his “The Hyborian Age” essay, which he wrote not to publish, but simply to get everything consistent. Burke added that REH was one of the first to draw a map of a fantasy world in 1932, 5 years before Tolkien. Shanks noted that Howard got a lot of his ideas from Theosophy, in particular from Lewis Spence’s and William Scott-Elliot’s theories about Atlantis, starting in 1926; Spence claimed Atlanteans were ancestors of the Cro-Magnons. Burke stated that one of the things that is so brilliant about REH as a writer is that he allows the reader to participate in the creation of the story, and so doesn’t get too specific about the details of his world, unlike many of today’s fantasists. Howard, moreover, was trying to set his stories in our Real World, not some other planet or dimension. Shanks said that REH was one of the first to develop the concept of a shared universe for his different stories and characters, contributing to verisimilitude. He was creating a history, not a culture, and so incorporated change and interactions much more than did other world-building authors. Unlike 19th-century thinking that culture evolved from savagery to barbarism to civilization, Howard theorized that cultures oscillated between the two extremes of savagery and civilization.

Add to this the traditional bus tour, postal cancellation, swap meets, silent auction, poetry readings, Barbarian Festival, and Caddo Peak Ranch barbecue, and you have another great Howard Days, thanks to members of REHupa and the REH Foundation and to the folks of Project Pride and Cross Plains.

Photos courtesy Barbara Barrett, Lee Breakiron, Bill Cavalier, Ed Chaczyk and Todd Vick.

Editor’s Note: In addition to Lee, I asked a few others to share their memories of Howard Days 2014:

Bill Cavalier:

As always, I enjoy seeing all my old REH friends at the extended family reunion we call Robert E. Howard Days. I was very impressed by a large number of “newbies” who came to Cross Plains this year to find out what Howard Days was all about. They have to enjoy REH first and then decide to come to our reunion, so I’m glad to have met and welcomed new family members. Kind of like a long lost cousin who decided to come home for a visit and stayed for the fellowship! Howard Days has become an event featuring friendship and fellowship, all in support of the Legacy of Ol’ Two-Gun Bob Howard!

Dave Hardy:

This year marks the sixteenth year in a row I have attended Howard Days (1999 to 2014), and it will be among the most memorable. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be on a panel with my good friend James Reasoner. We talked about Howard and history in his Westerns and the El Borak stories. Let me say James is a very patient man to tolerate my extended monologue on all things El Borak. We had a great audience who asked some shrewd questions. Ben Friberg got it all on camera, including my bellicose challenge to Kipling fans.

Some other high points were seeing my essay on “Spears of Clontarf” in the latest issue of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur. REH: TGR is always a delight to the mind and the eye, each issue is a work of art. It is an honor and a privilege to be part of it. I also had copies of my latest novel Palmetto Empire with me for sale. It’s a strange and humbling feeling to realize that I was sitting a few yards from Bob Howard’s room, where he spun all those tales of adventure and romance, putting my autograph on a book that I wrote. I’ll emphasize that it is humbling, because Howard is a big part of why I write, fighting the clock to say something worthwhile. Finally, the highest point is seeing old friends and making new ones from across the country and around the world.