Howard Days 2015

It’s been said that Howard Days only keeps getting better, and this year was certainly no exception.  It was a laid-back event seemingly enjoyed by all.  The turnout appeared to be about average, but extra local attendees packed the banquet tables.  The weather was clement and, though it was hot, it wasn’t extremely so.  It even rained late Saturday.  The spring rains had greened up the foliage, but unfortunately had driven so many snakes out of the ground that the Saturday evening barbecue had to be moved from the Caddo Peak Ranch to the Pavilion.  The Middleton family couldn’t be present, but it was nice that they continued their generous contribution to our event.

After the bus tour of Burkett and Cross Cut, the first Friday panel was held, as they all were, at the CP Library, where REHupan Ben Friberg videotaped them for posting on Youtube.  In keeping with the Howard/Lovecraft theme celebrating HPL’s 125th birthday this year, the panel “Conan vs. Cthulhu” featured REHupans Mark Finn and Jeff Shanks and short-story writer Scott Cupp.

As Finn explained, REH and HPL were longtime friends and correspondents.  Lovecraft especially was a prolific letter writer, penning over 100,000 letters to many correspondents, most of whom were of a very literary, erudite bent.  This correspondence preserves much of what we know of both men.  These exchanges were more beneficial to Howard because they helped him perfect his craft.  Their letters seem almost schizoid in nature, first because they seemed to follow two interweaving tracks, one answering the other’s previous letter point by point, and second because their exchanges could at times be friendly and encouraging, relating experiences and sharing clippings and postcards, and at other times be strident and contentious as they debated issues of a social, historical, or political nature.

Shanks opined that HPL should have paid more attention to REH’s suggestions and example, though they may have led him to insert some action in his “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”  They discussed concepts, entities, and backstory from their tales, even injecting references to them in their stories (such as REH’s reference to HPL’s Yog-Sothoth), making them cutting-edge pioneers in the now common art of crossover appearances and shared universes.  Cupp noted that each enjoyed writing about their native areas, which resulted in viecrovwpoints that might be conflicting, but were always insightful.  Shanks cited a primary example of this being Howard’s stories “The Children of the Night” and “The Black Stone,” riffing off Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories.  Finn added that “Stone” is widely considered to be the best CM story not written by HPL.  Prior to writing it, REH had been talking about the drift and spread of mythic concepts in his letters.  Both men had gotten their ideas about Little People from anthropologist Margaret Murray and author Arthur Machen.  Lovecraft took this in the direction of regression toward fish-like creatures, while Howard employed it in portraying devolution of Picts and Turanians into savages, as in “Children.”  This type of theory is outdated now, but it had some scientific basis then.  The science behind these ideas fascinated them both.

REH did not write many Cthulhoid stories, recognizing it not to be his forte, but did include references to the CM in a lot of his tales, such as “The Tower of Elephant,” “Xuthal of the Dusk,” “A Witch Shall Be Born,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” “The Vale of Lost Women,” and “The Valley of the Worm.”  In “Men of the Shadows,” REH’s Lemurians descended from fish-men that he might have read about in HPL’s “Dagon.”  If so, this would be Lovecraft’s earliest influence on Howard.  HPL and REH name-dropped Tsathoggua into stories after first seeing it in a tale CAS had sent them prior to publication.  Shanks said that Howard owned Otto Augustus Wall’s book Sex and Sex Worship (Phallic Worship), using information from it in “Stone” and using it as the partial inspiration for his fictional book, Justin Geoffrey’s Unausspechlichen Kulten, much as Lovecraft had done with Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon.  REH may have been the first to write stories about Lovecraft’s fictional works like “The Call of Cthulhu” as if it were actual reality, which is common practice now.

Regarding the two authors’ famous barbarism vs civilization debate, Finn thinks it is significant that HPL lacked the frame of reference that REH had on the Western frontier, and so derided Howard’s views on such matters as the trampling on personal rights by policemen, as occurs in “The God in the Bowl.”  REH did send that typescript to HPL, and apparently even wrote “Pigeons from Hell” as a kind of answer to and parody of the latter’s New England horror fiction, showing that the South could be just as scary a setting for a horror story. As an advisor to the creators of the new Monolith Conan role-playing game, Shanks has been incorporating CM-related (as well as Clark Ashton Smith-related) ideas into it.  Howard added the sexual dimension to CM toad-like deities like Tsathoggua.  An audience member pointed out that recent updates by critics Kevin O’Brien and Bobby Derie have made the CM much sexier than it originally was.

Guest of Honor Mark Schultz was spotlighted in the second panel and of course later at the banquet.  He illustrated Wandering Star’s and Del Rey’s first volume of the Complete Conan, while other artists did the other volumes.  Schultz welcomed this, since each had his own interpretation of Conan, none being definitive.  He found art director Marcelo Anciano great to work with, in part because Anciano had a clear idea of what he wanted and provided a formal pattern for it.  Schultz has been drawing since childhood, starting with dinosaurs, then Tarzan, and finally Howard, whom he found was much deeper than Burroughs.  Schultz has always been fascinated with the fact that REH and HPL were dealing with the transition from the supernatural to the scientific.  Schultz first studied at Kutztown State University.  Then he went into comics because he liked illustrating stories, being an admirer of illustrators like Pyle, Wyeth, Cornwell, Frazetta, Williamson, and Wood.

Schultz’s first comics were the Xenozoic series, which he will be going back to in a new book.  For 10 years, he has been the primary writer on the Prince Valiant comic strip.  He wonders if Prince Valiant was inspired by Howard, though they may have been influenced by the same sources.  Schultz admits he is a slow, analytical worker and that a really productive artist would better know when to stop.  He finds it easy to adopt REH because the author is so sparse but dead-on in his descriptions.  In order to avoid Howard’s anachronisms, though, Schultz prefers to depict ancient, rather than medieval, armaments and forces.  The pulp artist he admires most is Hugh Rankin because of his moody, horrific interpretations, rather than focusing on musculature or action.  Schultz studies his intended subjects, but mainly goes with what is most effective dramatically.  He is careful to be as realistic and convincing as possible before he adds a fantastic element, much as REH did in his fiction.  His favorite comic artist is Wally Wood.

In his eloquent banquet speech, Schultz said he likes to illustrate science fact as well as science fiction and fantasy.  He really responds to the storytelling, adventure, atmosphere, weight of deep time, command of language, and personalization in Howard’s tales.  REH was using genres and tropes from old European fiction, while injecting his own dedication to individualism and love of freedom, making his stories far more layered and textured than one would expect from genre fiction.  Howard chose his descriptive words carefully and economically, which Schultz regards as a mark of true genius.  He has two new books coming out this summer: Portfolio and Storms at Sea.

Following presentation of the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards, which has been covered elsewhere, there was a bus trip to REH’s grave in Brownwood’s Greenleaf Cemetery.

Scott Cupp’s wife made the interesting point that the Cross Plains Post Office has not been abolished, as so many rural post offices have been, because of the extra business provided by the REH Days pictorial cancellations and the mailing out of so many REH Foundation books.

During the traditional Fists at the Ice House talk Friday night, Finn, Gruber, and Shanks read parts of humorous Costigan and serious Kid Allison stories, as well as Howard’s historical commentary.  They then read boxing poems, even one in which Finn adopted the voice of Mohammed Ali.  They talked about REH’s motivations in writing his boxing stories, which were doubtless based in part on his personal experiences boxing with his friends at the CP ice house, not to mention his extensive knowledge of boxing history.  Afterward, many attendees went to the Pavilion to recite poetry or just talk.

The first Saturday panel was on the A Means to Freedom collection of Howard’s and Lovecraft’s letters to each another.  REHupan Rusty Burke noted that only REH’s letters survive, HPL’s letters having been accidentally burned by Dr. Howard in the early 1940s. Fortunately, Arkham House publisher August Derleth had transcribed the latter earlier.  The text of all the correspondence in the books was checked by David Schultz, while Burke and Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi did the research and annotations.  Burke said that HPL and REH were very different individuals.  Lovecraft affected an 18th-century New England gentleman, while Howard was proud of his Southwestern heritage.  Unlike HPL, REH was quick to take offense.  Panelist Jonas Prida remarked on the schizoid character of their correspondence and that each related their own life experiences regardless of whether they thought the other was actually interested in them.  Panelist Dierk Guenther said that Howard is an extremely unreliable informant, so at any one time it is difficult to tell if he is being serious or making fun of Lovecraft, which makes reading the correspondence interesting but frustrating.  Burke observed that they encouraged each other’s interests and efforts, but said it was so akin to goading that the two probably would not have maintained their friendship if they had ever met.  Prida added that they were very concerned, not only with the craft of writing, but how each could make a living as a writer.

Guenther said that REH was obviously very proud of being from Texas and was very knowledgeable about its history and culture.  Aside from “Vultures of Whapeton,” Guenther isn’t impressed with Howard’s straight westerns.  Asked if REH would have continued with westerns or returned to fantasy had he lived, Burke opined that it would probably have depended on sales, but thought he would have done more weird westerns like “Nekht Semerkeht.”  Prida said that, hard as it was to do (HPL couldn’t), Howard could bridge genres so as to appeal to another market if he couldn’t sell to a particular pulp.  As to whether they respected one another, Burke stated that their attitudes developed with time.  REH started out very deferential, but progressively became more argumentative and sarcastic.  HPL recognized the other’s skill, but thought his stories were too bloody and commercial.  In their political discussions, Lovecraft expressed admiration for Fascism as it preserved social order and favored mechanization as leading to a better, less toilsome life.  Howard strongly disagreed, prizing individual freedom and accomplishment.  Thus, they were diametrically opposed to one another regarding the relative importance of society vs. the individual.  As far as seeing themselves as literary figures, Burke said that HPL did so to some extent, though a lot of that was a pose, while REH knew what fiction was good and popular, but was more concerned with commercial success than literary recognition.  Guenther added that Howard did regard himself as a pioneer in regional writing.

REHupan Bill Cavalier introduced the Saturday panel on Fantasy Gaming by saying that, after starting to play Dungeons & Dragons in 1978 because it allowed him to be Conan, he discovered that REH had had more influence on the creation of D & D than any other author, as he confirmed with its creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.  Panelist Shanks explained that there have been several Conan role-playing and video games over the years, as well as the board game Age of Conan, but all these incorporated pastiche material and none had a Howardian feel.  Panelist and REHupan Patrice Louinet recently became an advisor to a French effort by Monolith Games to produce a Conan board game because he is an REH purist and wanted to make sure the game would be true to its source material, which he also wanted to promote the reading of.  The project involves the best designers available.  The Kickstarter campaign has raised $3.3 million, the largest amount ever pledged for a board game.  The game will debut at GenCon 2015 in July/August.

Shanks became advisor to Modiphius Games’ effort to create a Conan role-playing game because previous versions by TSR, GURPS, and Mongoose had incorporated pastiche material, and Modiphius wanted to return to the original pulp stories.  Shanks piqued their interest by describing Howard as “Burroughs meets Lovecraft.”  The Kickstarter support promises to be huge.  Shanks got them to call it Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed of.  He then enlisted Finn as a writer.  Panelist Finn said that they will produce supplement books for different phases of Conan’s life, each with different settings and rules.  Shanks got Louinet to help as an advisor and he himself is serving as art director.  Shanks will be able to select the artists, who will include Schultz, Kelly, Sanjulian, Truman, Giorello, and many others.  Finn added that they all got involved in these gaming projects because of the opportunity to pull in new Howard readers, while removing pastiche material.  Some content will have to be invented, but it will be kept as Howardian as possible.

Topping off the Saturday presentations was an interview of brothers Brad and Jeff Howard, whose great-grandfather was Dr. Howard’s brother, and Brad’s daughter Amanda.  They brought and displayed their Family Bible, which was published in 1857 and lists many ancestors going back to 1837, including REH and his parents, though it is not complete.  The book should give us significantly more information about the Howard family.  The Howards also brought their copy (only the 13th known) of the Jenkins 1937 edition of A Gent from Bear Creek, though it is in poor condition.  Louinet had first contacted the family in the course of his research into REH’s genealogy.

And for the final icing on the cake, Louinet — who has been researching Howard’s family history tirelessly for years — discovered three photos of Howard with the Butler children, who lived next door to the Howards, playing pirates, along with a photo of Hester and Patch. These have already appeared online. However, Louinet did not have the originals. Joe Henderson, son of the Butler’s daughter, came to Cross Plains on Saturday and brought the originals of the four photos, plus four more and presented them as a gift to Louinet. The four additional photos, three of which have never been seen before, include two featuring the Butler kids with Howard, the famous photo of Howard drinking out of a giant beer schooner and a photo of the Butler house with the Howard house in the background.

And so came to an end another unique and rewarding Howard Days celebration.

Photos courtesy of Russell Andrew, Rusty Burke, Rob Roehm, Jeff Shanks, Todd Vick and others