RevSF Contributing editor and award-winning scholar Mark Finn has long been a champion of Robert E. Howard. (One of his earliest articles for RevSF
was about the Texas writer.) As part of the Robert E. Howard centennial festivities, MonkeyBrain Books recently published Finn's Blood & Thunder: The Life of Robert E. Howard. RevSF recently caught up with the author to discuss Robert E. Howard, Texas, barbarians, and other things. By Finn's insistence, no questions were asked about furry underpants.
There have been other Robert E. Howard biographies. How does Blood & Thunder differ from these previous efforts?
For one thing, Blood & Thunder isn't a "kitchen sink" kind of biography. I thought it would be far more useful to make it a balance of critical appreciation for his writing, measured against all of the new information that has come to light in the twenty-plus years that Dark Valley Destiny had come out. That book, written by L. Sprague de Camp, deals largely with Robert's suicide and offers to examine, sometimes to a fault, and occasionally with huge amounts of speculation written as fact, about what could possibly have made Robert so crazy as to kill himself. It was de Camp who pushed the agenda that Robert and his mother were "unnaturally close," a stance he finally backed off of saying outright. De Camp, however, was nothing if not a clever writer and left the subtext hanging for all to ruminate over.
Ironically, I dipped into de Camp's notes at the Ransom Center [at the University of Texas], since he actually managed to interview a number of people who are no longer alive. The interviews reveal a lot about how that book came together; many times in the interviews, the de Camps would redirect a question if they feel that they didn't get the answer they want. If five people told them that Robert was a healthy baby, and one woman remembered Robert as sickly, that's what they ran with.
Blood & Thunder addresses, by necessity, some of de Camp's allegations, but also advances some of my own observations about Robert and his career. Chief among them was that Robert was a Texas author, and as such, deserves the same accolades afforded Mitchner, McMurtry, McCarthy, Porter, O.Henry, Dobie, and countless others. In Howard's Centennial year, that was my only goal.
How has the response been to book, both in and out of the Howard community?
So far, the book has been very well received. It got a blurb from Publisher's Weekly, made the New and Noteworthy list at Locus, and I got name dropped by the Wall Street Journal's culture writer. A lot of folks who aren't Howard-heads are reading it and really enjoying it. The Howard community is finding some nits to pick, but they have all thrown their weight in behind the book, and that's very gratifying. Mostly, the Howard fan nitpicks are along the lines of "why didn't you talk about X?" or "I wish you'd spent less time on Y." Things like that. The Howard fans are just happy that there's another biography out!
Why study Robert E. Howard?
Well, that answer to that is pretty simple: why not? But, in terms of popular culture, there's something compelling about all of the pulp authors who have, in one way or another, transcended their humble origins. Lovecraft, Chandler, and yeah, even Robert E. Howard. He gave us the enduring images of barbarism versus civilization in many of his stories. His worldview was compellingly downbeat and dark in a kind of film noir way. Those messages of recurring conflict have relevance and resonance in the modern world, for modern audiences. Conan alone merits an ongoing discussion, as a pop cultural touchstone on a level with Sherlock Holmes and Superman.
Consider this: if I said to you, "No shit, Sherlock," that carries a connotation. Likewise, if I said to you, "Who do you think you are, Superman?" there's a meaning inherent to the phrase. And if I said, "Settle down, Conan. You can't win this," you have everything in that sentence to understand who and what I mean by the use of the name "Conan." Howard's work is part of the American zeitgeist. That many of his fans choose to get wrapped up in the swords and serving girls is fine, but it ignores a lot of larger, and frankly more interesting, discussions about pulp and character and meaning and intent and the purpose of all of the above as it relates to the things that Robert E. Howard wrote about.
What is Robert E. Howard's place and stature in American literature?
Howard occupies a unique niche in American Literature. My friend and colleague Steve Tompkins has written a lot on the idea that Robert's fiction falls squarely in the American literature camp, the camp occupied by Hawthorne, D.H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Hemingway, and others. Howard's stance is certainly masculine, aligning him with Jack London and others, but his use of symbol and metaphor is as rich and varied as any of the Southern post-modern gothic authors like Faulkner.
That only a handful of people know that is pretty appalling. Michael Dirda, on the occasion of Robert's 100th birthday, wrote a nice review of the Conan paperbacks from Del Rey. While not breaking any new ground for critical studies, Dirda's review indicated that he saw more than just the trappings of sword and sorcery in Howard's work. It's adventure writing, sure, but the fulcrum on which the plots shift back and forth is an interesting discussion of what makes a man: education and breeding or a strong moral compass?
The main difference is this: you can give a class of eighth graders The Sun Also Rises (which I really like), and have them read it, or you can give them the short story, "Beyond the Black River," and see which one they are going to enjoy and even want to discuss more.
But, to answer your question succinctly (hah!), Howard is the black sheep of American literature. His influence is wide, but diversely felt. And his legacy is only starting to be looked at and discussed seriously outside of fan-circles.
Most fans of our generation were first introduced to REH through the Conan films and comic books. What path did you take? How do you think most of the newer fans are discovering him?
I came in through the movie, but I was also a comics nerd and a D&D dork, too, so it was inevitable that I would come to REH at some point or another. By my own experience, I'm seeing a number of new fans coming to the fiction by way of the Dark Horse comics. I have had two people talk to me and actually recommend the essays in the back of the Conan trades (essays that I wrote!) because they had so much good information about REH. The essays in the trades, and the Two-Gun Bob strips in the monthly comic (by Jim and Ruth Keegan) help maintain the presence of REH in the comics.
Of course, what's on the horizon is the Age of Conan multiplayer online game. That's where the influx of folks will come from. You won't believe it, but there will be a run on those books after the game is released this year.
Your career started as a comic writer then a prose writer. How did you morph into a Robert E. Howard scholar?
It was less of a morph and more of a shifting of my interests to the front of my brain. I've always been a Robert E. Howard fan; I've widely credited him with my desire to write professionally. For years, I was content to do what I did with all of my other genre interests and pursuits: search and consume. As a book collector, it was easy. Old and new REH was everywhere. It was when I was at a San Diego Comic-Con in the mid-nineties that I realized I needed to get more involved.
I was talking about Robert E. Howard to Mike Mignola and he mentioned casually that his buddy Gary Gianni was illustrating Solomon Kane for a specialty press in England. I hurried over to his table and quizzed him about it and sure enough, it was true. That was, by the way, the start of the Howard resurgence. The book publisher, Wandering Star, is still active and they are behind the Del Rey book releases.
But finding out about that limited edition book, by chance, kinda scared me into getting more involved. So, little by little, I plugged myself into that world. It was small, cantankerous, and really insular. Eventually, I figured out that the smallest, tightest circle was an APA called REHupa (the Robert E. Howard United Press Association), as closed and private a club as one could hope for. And it was full of these guys, some serious, some just fans, all talking on a very meta- kind of level about REH. I couldn't believe it! All of this great stuff, these cool discoveries, and only 30 people knew about it. It was maddening.
So I joined with the express intent of trying to get these people to publish their material elsewhere. I won't take the credit for what happened, because others in the group had been doing the same thing, but eventually, several of the REHupans started taking their knowledge beyond their little city-state. I realized that any goals I wanted achieved in Robert E. Howard studies, I had to do them myself, or they wouldn't get done at all.
What is your favorite REH character and story?
Heh. If you had asked me that question at 15, it would have been Conan, no question. At 20, it was Kull, without a doubt. At 25, I loved Solomon Kane. Now, I get the biggest kick out of Robert's humorous characters, Sailor Steve Costigan and Breckinridge Elkins.
It's not fair to ask me what my favorite REH story is. Right now, during Halloween season, I always re-read "Pigeons From Hell." Esoterically, I think "Wild Water" is one of the best things he ever wrote. But one of my all-time, love it every time favorite stories is "Sailor Costigan and the Destiny Gorilla." I shouldn't have to explain why I like that to
you! I mean, how can you go wrong with a title like that?
What other REH related projects are you involved in?
I am one of the four bloggers involved with The Cimmerian blog, along with Leo Grin, Rob Roehm, and Steve Tompkins. That's ongoing. I also have a story in the anthology Cross Plains Universe.
The story, "A Whim of Circumstance," centers on the Conan movie that Ray Harryhausen never made, Clay Stark, the King of the Gorilla Men, and has cameos by de Camp and Lin Carter. I love it, but I have no idea if anyone else will get it.
And then, of course, I'm adapting Sailor Steve Costigan stories for the Violet Crown Radio Players. We're looking at adapting Howard's comic western novel, "A Gent From Bear Creek," too. There may be other adaptation work in the future. I don't know. But I'd like to take a crack at some of the work being done. I've got, I think, the perfect idea for a Conan movie that's slavishly faithful to REH, but still filmable and something that would keep old fans and hook new ones. Somehow, though, I never get invited to those pitch meetings! (laughs)
Of all the REH projects you have been involved with which was the most fun?
Frankly, and without any apologies whatsoever, it's the Sailor Steve Costigan radio plays we have done for the Violet Crown Radio Players shows. I have had many REH fans come up to me after shows and tell me that when they read the funny boxing stories now, my portrayal of Costigan is what they "hear" in their minds. That's about the coolest thing anyone can say to an actor!
But I work on those shows from the ground up, cutting the story into script form, working out the gags and the inflection with the cast. It's very rewarding from a creative standpoint. I get to present Howard's work (and specifically his words) to an audience that has never experienced them before and have them "get" the story.
Do you plan on writing more biographies or are you planning on returning to your fiction roots?
Writing biographically is probably the hardest thing I have ever attempted. I can't say for sure I'd never do it again; the subject would need to be extremely close to my heart for me to try it. But for the near future, I have returned to fiction and I'm enjoying it very much. I won't give up non-fiction writing. In fact, I've got a small grocery list of projects cued up. But for now, stuff I don't have to fact-check gets top priority. I miss crafting fiction. I'm glad I'm back in it. Those muscles weaken if you don't use them.
Has Howard had an influence on your own fiction writing?
Oh, Jesus, yes! Everything I learned about writing fight scenes came from Howard. No one writes action like he did. No one. But yeah, as I said before, it was Howard that made me want to be a writer in the first place. If I hadn't read him when I did, I may have ended up a writer, but it would have been a very different one. Reading REH stories still makes me feel thirteen again.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Howard and yourself while writing this book?
For myself, it was finding out that I could, in fact, write a biography. That was a big deal for me. I've written books before, but this was a from-scratch kind of thing and it scared the hell out of me, at first. But I had some great models to base my structure on, and so I just attacked the bio like I had attacked other large projects: One thing at a time.
From the REH standpoint, I'd say that finding that article on "The Art of Tall Lying" by Mody Boatright was my magic bullet. Here was a respected Texas writer and folklorist, writing after thirty-odd years of fieldwork, about what makes for a good Texas tall tale, and it's like a blueprint to Howard's work. I felt like Indiana Jones in the Tanis Map Room just after 9 AM . . . if you know what I mean.
Who are some of the other "forgotten" writers that readers should to be reminded of?
One of the guys that I've lately discovered is Horace McCoy, one of the progenitors of noir writing. I read They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and it blew me away. This guy was the Cornell Woolrich of Texas.
In the same vein, no one has reprinted Fredric Brown's mystery and noir writing in a long time, and it's so good, it's scary.
In the Sword and sorcery arena, there isn't nearly enough Karl Edward Wagner in print. Either his Kane stories or his horror stories. That guy was too good.
I'm not entirely sure that Howard qualifies as forgotten anymore. Del Rey has committed to three more volumes of REH's work, on top of the six they have already printed, and keep in print. You can even find Wildside Press REH books in some bookstores, now, along with the Bison Books. Since 2007 is the 75th Anniversary of Conan, you'll see and hear a lot more about REH and the archetypal Barbarian before it's all over.