Mark Finn Talks About The Updated Edition of Blood & Thunder

The Robert E. Howard Foundation has just announced on their website that pre-orders are now being taken for Mark Finn’s new edition of Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard. In this new edition, Mark takes a broadsword to many of those tired, outdated myths that have grown up around Howard and his fictional creations. Armed with twenty-five years of research and a wealth of historical documents, Finn paints a very different picture from the one that millions of fans of Conan have been sold throughout the years.

Using quotes from Howard’s own letters, first-hand accounts, interviews, and meticulous research, Mark shows that Howard was, in fact, a product of his time and place in rural Texas, and that his legendary fiction was shaped by Texas history, folklore, and Howard’s incomparable imagination.

The updated and expanded second edition is more complete and up-to-date with new information discovered since the book was initially published in 2006, as well as more detailed examinations of some of Howard’s most famous and important characters and stories.

Mark was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions on his new edition of Blood & Thunder and give us all some insight into what this updated Howard biography is all about.

TGR: First, why a new edition of Blood & Thunder?

Mark: Oh, well, it’s no secret amongst the movers and shakers of Howard studies and Howard fandom that there are some errors, both technical and factual, in the first edition. All unintentional, of course, but remember, I had to write it while the Centennial loomed nigh. So, I went fast, and Monkeybrain went fast, and we all pulled together and got it out in time for the World Fantasy Convention, which was in October of that year. Any later and we would have missed the deadline. So, unintentionally, some errors crept in from earlier drafts, and some wonky sentences didn’t get fixed.

And then, in 2006, Don Herron rediscovered Doc Howard’s medical books. And then Rob Roehm started uncovering tidbits here and there (and he’s still doing it). And then in 2007 or 2008, I forget which, Patrice Louinet managed to pinpoint when Howard and his family were in New Orleans, and the serendipitous discovery that led to, and oh, hell, there’s new stuff now! So, I was already keeping an error file, for fixing, and I kept my slush pile and my notes for some things I either decided not to include for space or time purposes, and all at once, it occurred to me: a second edition! That would fix everything!

And that’s how it all got started. It took a while for me, because I was shopping the hardcover hither and yon. For a while, I entertained the notion that Del Rey would release it along with their other REH books, but that fell through. In any case, I’m very happy that the Foundation picked up the ball, because it guarantees better control over keeping it available.

TGR: The new edition has a great cover. Tell me about the design. Who came up with the idea of using that classic photo of Howard wielding the gun and knife?

Mark: Oh, that was all Keegan, man! (laughs) He gets carte blanche, these days, you know? I’m sure he was thinking about how it would look with the other REH books on the shelf, but also, I know he wanted to use a photo of REH–but not the same two or three that seem to grace the covers of so many projects in the last 30 years. That picture is one of the posed photographs that he took with Vinson and Smith, and I always figured that they set them up intentionally as either reference for a story or as something to illustrate a project that never materialized. Of course, we’ll never know, but that picture is definitely one of the pics you don’t see very often. Good choice, I thought.

TGR: During the five years between the first and second editions, what new information about Howard’s life has emerged, if any?

Mark: You know, it’s not anything huge and world-shaking…I mean, there’s no bombshells. But what has come to light is a lot of what I’d call secondary and ancillary material. It’s all stuff to hold up to the light and say, “okay, what effect could this possibly have had on X part of REH’s life?” Doc Howard’s incessant, intricate geometric doodles in his medical books, The Axe-Man of New Orleans, conversations with Lovecraft, an interesting wrinkle on the day of Howard’s suicide… lots of little things. But given how little we actually know about the Howard family, even that stuff is pretty cool, I’d say.

TGR: With the passage of time between your two versions of Blood & Thunder have you formed any new opinions about Howard or his writings?

Mark: There are two new theses in B&T 2nd ed. One is about the Breck Elkins stories that I didn’t have time or room to include in the first edition. The second is something I’d been driving toward for a while, and that has to do with the Conan stories. We may have talked about it in Cross Plains this year, but basically, I make the charge that Conan was written for specific commercial considerations in Weird Tales. That’s not to say he phoned them in, but he was pitching specifically to Wright. And that’s why there’s things in the Conan stories that don’t jibe with the rest of Howard’s work–things like his mercurial attitudes about damsels in distress. I contend that the scholars and fans have been looking at it the wrong way: Conan is the anomaly. If you take those stories out of the picture, suddenly Howard becomes a proto-feminist. Put them back in, and he’s just another pulp author indulging in macho sex fantasies. That’s just an example, but I think you get what I’m saying.

TGR: Is there anything you found particularly challenging in updating the original edition?

Mark: Oh, god yes! I had to spend another year and a half with a book I’d already spent a year with earlier. It was, at times, torturous. Especially since I had to rewrite specific passages. I had to literally throw myself back into a mindset six years gone. Very difficult, very challenging. That said, some of the rewriting was a lot of fun. I loved adding in the new bits. That’s a fun creative challenge, to make sure it still flows from point to point and doesn’t get bogged down. I wanted to keep the book accessible and readable.

TGR: This second edition is nearly twice the size of the first. That is a lot of additional wordage. What does it contain?

Mark: Thirty five thousand additional words. It’s got a new index, notes on the chapters, all of the extra stuff mentioned earlier, new material in the Conan and Breck Elkins chapters, cleaned up sentences, new facts and pieces of info about a number of things, and all chapters save the first two have something new and different in them. It’s a true second edition, or as I’ve been calling it, my “director’s cut.”

TGR: There are still a group of folks out there who believe de Camp’s Dark Valley Destiny is the definitive Howard biography. Do you think this new edition of B&T will change their minds?

Mark: Nope. Not a bit. Take John Howe, for example. No, really, take him! He called the first book “pretentious to read” and “inaccurate.” Here’s a guy who came to B&T with a chip on his shoulder. There’s no other way he could have found that book pretentious. And as for “inaccurate,” that just a code-word for “I didn’t agree with his conclusions.” Whatever. You can’t make a horse drink. However, there are a lot of people who want to read about REH and can’t find Dark Valley Destiny anymore. So, good. Here’s Blood & Thunder instead. I think that’s kind of akin to burning the hydra’s head after you’ve cut it off. It’s still there, but it’s not very effective anymore.

TGR: I know is kind of early for this question, but you believe this new edition is the final word on Howard’s life and works or do you foresee yourself revisiting the topic a few years down the road?

Mark: Definitely not. The final word, I mean. I know there are at least two more books being talked about or worked on, and they will each have their own take, based on their experiences. I will say this, though: With this edition, I’ve included every theory, thesis, or idea I’ve ever had about REH, since the age of 15. That itch has finally been thoroughly scratched. I don’t see myself revisiting the biography again, but I’ll never say never. And it won’t keep me from writing more about the boxing and the westerns, or whatever I’m on about these days in Howard studies.

TGR: If there was one thing you would for readers of this new edition to walk away with, what would it be?

Mark: Everything de Camp ever told you about Howard is wrong. That’s what I want. A sense of anger and betrayal at the man who purported to know. I soft-pedaled de Camp in the first edition. Now the gloves are off. The second edition is much meaner to de Camp and E. Hoffmann Price, and I make pains to explain why.

Judging from Mark’s answers, this is going to be a humdinger of a Howard biography — chock-full of good stuff not in the first edition. I’ve already ordered my copy and encourage everyone who is interested to to the same.  With a 150 copy print run, it is sure to sellout fast.