The original plan was to write a hard-hitting review of the 2006 World Fantasy Convention. The luminaries, the parties, the feuds. However, the conference hotel had a giant atrium that was impossible to cross (and, I should add, all the conference rooms were located diametrically from each other around this atrium) without running into friends and associates from WisCon, ArmadilloCon, FenCon, and OWFI. I think I attended only one panel from start to finish the entire weekend.
Unlike some of the regional or local conventions Iíve attended, there was very little in the way of costumes at WFC. In fact, the only person hefting a mighty foam broadsword was Texas author Mark Finn. The 2006 WFC was also the Robert E. Howard Centennial, and Mark Finn had recently seen the release of Blood and Thunder: The Life of Robert E. Howard.
Eager to understand more about the centennial and why someone as well-researched as Conan creator REH would need another book written about him, I knew that Mark Finn was the man to talk to.
What started as a formal interview devolved into a looong discussion about Robert Howard, Conan, and Mr. Finnís own writing. Picture us, if you will, upon the verandah of some
god-forsaken quaint Texas farmhouse somewhere. There might be rocking chairs involved, and iced tea. Maybe a little Shiner. An oil derrick stands a wintry guard on the dusty horizon while the tarantulas scuttle across the plains in the last leg of their annual fall migration.
And this is where the story begins.
Dotar Sojat: Conan. How did you first discover him?
Mark Finn: This one was easy. I was a D&D dork, like just about everyone in my generation. I was twelve when I first saw the movie Conan the Barbarian on HBO one night. My folks made me cover my eyes at the nudity, but I got to watch all of the gore. Welcome to Texas.
At the beginning of the film, the title card came up: "Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard". I had seen that name before, in my trusty Dungeon Master's Guide. Well, after watching the movie, I had to read about Conan. The first book I got was a birthday present from Amy Newton. She bought me Conan the Usurper. After that, it was all downhill.
DS: Whoa. D&D dork? Welcome to my adolescent world. I think I saw that movie much later, but I saw it before I started reading the books. And I love that word "Usurper."
What did you think of the movie? I liked it, but in my mind there is a weird disconnect—the movie is about some OTHER Cimmerian named Conan.
MF: Yeah, hereís the thing about the Conan movie: it works, because many of the ideas and themes parallel the stuff that REH talked about. But it ainít Conan. It ain't even close.
That said, I can enjoy the movie if I turn off my REH brain and just watch the swordfights and nudity. I think we can all get behind that.
DS: And how long after that did you develop an interest in REH? I assume that Conan led you to REH, but perhaps you came at it another way.
MF: No, you're right, Conan lead me straight to REH in general. It was on the third or fourth Conan paperback that I noticed the little biographical spiel in the front: Cross Plains, Texas. At the time, I was living in Abilene, Texas, not forty-five minutes away from Cross Plains. That really intrigued me. How did he do that? I'd been through Cross Plains, and it was hard to imagine. But as soon as I realized that he'd written other stuff, I started grabbing whatever I could find.
DS: You lived in Abilene? You poor, poor bastard...I'm with you, though. I lived in Jacksboro and Pampa during the late '70s before moving to Oklahoma. Free at last! Thank god, I'm free at last!
MF: From a Texan point of view, I like small towns. That's not to say that I don't love Austin, because I do, but you get a very different flavor for Texas in, say, Lockhart, than if you visit, say, Houston. In fact, I'll go ahead and say it: Houston is so big, it's no longer Texas. Neither, for that matter, is Dallas.
DS: What was it about REH that pulled you in? Pulled you in enough where you were compelled to write a book about him?
MF: All right. It's like this: do you remember the first time you read something and the words came alive for you? Not the first time, when you are just excited that Jane saw the dog with the ball. I mean, the words stick in your mental grille and stain your subconscious forever. I think all Book-Nuts (those people who cannot live without books) are trying to find that author that will embrace them like a lover and never let them go. Well, I found mine at the age of twelve.
Robert's prose is a languid, fluid, whip-sharp thing. His descriptive abilities, the poetic roll of his language, and the vivid strokes with which he paints his action and violence, are absolutely unlike any other author of his day and age. He is singular. Unique. And I know this because I have searched and sought and I have looked all through fantasy literature for someone who comes close. And you know what? No one can do what Robert could do.
I'm not saying the subject matter is for everyone. Conan is a divisive figure, more pop-cultural construct than anything else these days. But his historical fiction, his horror stories, and even (and maybe especially) his vast catalog of humorous work, are all waiting for folks to give REH a try. If you don't think you'll like Conan, don't read him. Those stories encompass less than one-tenth of his total fiction output. And his poetry? Sheesh. Almost 800 poems. The top 100 of which are so good, it's downright irritating.
Anyway, it was REH's ease with the language and his gripping, compelling storytelling that made me want to do the same thing.
I probably should have said all of that first, eh?
DS: There is something hard to pin down about REH's style, at least in the Conan stories (which are, I confess, the only thing I've read by him). "Visceral" is the term that comes most easily to my mind.
MF: Yeah. It's gut-level, emotionally-based writing. Howard stories always come from the gut. The best ones do, anyway. He uses emotions that we're not always comfortable with in the crafting of his plots: greed, hatred, jealousy, power. The stuff that instantly provokes.
There's a famous quote about REH by Lovecraft, taken from his eulogy. I'll paraphrase it: "What makes Howard's stories so good is that he himself is in every single one of them." That quote gets misused a lot to denote that REH believed in Conan, giant snakes, and was otherwise crazy. What it really means is that Robert, as a natural storyteller (and tall liar), invested himself in the story. Lies become truth, in other words, when you start to believe the lies. Howard did this all the time in his work; you read about how Conan's saber tears its way through a guardsman, and there's such a nonchalant truth to REH's tone that you instinctively just buy into it.
DS: Maybe that's it. It's the nonchalant truth of it. Like a veteran telling about war stories, it's a blunt truthfulness whose flipside (that the guard's saber could just as easily tear through Conan) is always there.
MF: And I think that may have come from some of the stuff that REH had to deal with on a daily basis in his life. Remember, his dad was one of the town doctors, and one who intentionally moved in the Boom Town circuit, at that. So, you have, in addition to the usual farm accidents—being kicked by mules, snakebites, and so forth—a huge number of industrial accidents from the oil fields. Paul Herman told me a great old joke about the oil workers. You can tell how long a person has been in the oil fields by counting their remaining fingers and subtracting ten.
Roughnecks like to fight. And so, at any time of the day or night, someone might appear on Doc Howard's doorstep, holding his stomach together. REH wrote to Lovecraft that he saw a man killed in a knife fight in New Orleans as a boy. Such was life back then. Even if REH hadn't really seen a man die in New Orleans, it's likely that he saw roughnecks at the very least beat the shit out of each other. He also boxed, bare-knuckle and otherwise, at the ice house, and according to people who knew about such things, he was good at it.
I think that casual attitude towards violence is simply a part of his own environment, and living with a stoic Texas frontier-medicine-trained doctor. You had to take it casually; otherwise, you'd freak out.
DS: It seems to me that REH not only created an archetype character (or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he just perfected it), but he himself was an archetype figure of a "writer." To the fan he was a loner and a bit of an oddball. To writers he seemed to live in an almost golden age where one could make a living at the pulps. Do you think he's been a bit romanticized?
MF: Oh, it's been very much romanticized. With a few notable exceptions, the only pulp writers who got fat and happy were able to camp out at the offices of these pulp magazines and get by on pick-up work. Everyone else was trying to be good, with varying degrees of success. Well, we know who was good, because they are still around, aren't they? Chandler, Hammett, Howard, Lovecraft, and so forth. There are a few folks who slipped through the cracks, but by and large, the major talents from the pulp era continue to be printed and reprinted.
As far as his "image" goes, well, he helped with some of that himself. Remember, he was in a small Texas town in the 1920s and 1930s. If you weren't on the farm, or in the oil fields, then you had a job clerking in a store, or a position in a bank or law office. If you weren't doing those jobs, then as long as you were doing work of some kind (with your hands), then no one said a thing about it.
But very few people understood what REH was doing. Why write? The average Cross Plains citizen thought—what is there to say? And exactly how is sitting at home, banging on a typewriter, working? But no one said anything when Robert cashed hundred and two hundred dollar checks every month. The bankers knew. Doctor Howard's friends knew. But no one else really did. And so, Robert's writing habits and mannerisms have become the stuff of legend. All writers are nuts. Robert was no different.
DS: Not to take away from his accomplishments, but do you think that since REH was able to live at his parents' home (rent-free, one supposes) that he had his time freed up for writing? It's hard to write, or paint, or sculpt, when you're giving forty-plus hours a week to The Man. Did he have "regular" jobs?
MF: If you had asked Robert what his job was at the time, he would have told you, "I'm a writer!" He worked twelve to fourteen hours a day on writing, sometimes non-stop, for days at a time. He'd bang out several different stories at once. And while he was living at home, there was another side to it, as well. His mother's tuberculosis was getting worse and worse. Robert was her primary caregiver, since his dad was gone for long hours making house calls, delivering babies, and patching up roughnecks. So, it came with a price, this living at home.
During his teenage years, he held down a variety of jobs, and he hated them all. Hated having a boss, hated the clock-punching, hated the menial work. I think that fiction writing was one of the few things he could have done, since there was nobody telling him what he could or couldn't do.
DS: Help me separate some of the fact from the fiction. Sometimes it seems that REH's oddball reputation becomes one of borderline crazy. And he did commit suicide at the age of twenty-seven. What's your take on it?
MF: Thirty. He committed suicide at the age of thirty. He wrote, almost non-stop, for twelve years. Amazing, isn't it? And yet, Robert was pretty unhappy. My take on it was, if he could have done something else with himself, he would have. But the circumstances of his life, caring for his tubercular mother while his father made the rounds in the county, and staying home to write as a way to keep an eye on her, weren't always to his liking or satisfaction. Robert wasn't dumb. He knew what he was doing went totally against the grain of society at large. And so he rationalized his life so that it would make sense.
I think that Robert wanted to kill himself sooner, but his mother had maybe convinced him to stay and take care of her. And so, as soon as he realized that he wouldn't have to take care of her anymore, he opted out. It's a hard thing to swallow. There's a lot more to it than that, but I think it's really that simple.
DS: I guess I was getting REH confused with the Irish mythic warrior Cúchulainn—who choose to live a short life in exchange for enduring fame—and was killed at twenty-seven. I'm sure REH knew about Cúchulainn, he studied a lot, but he wasn't a complete shut-in. He boxed, and he traveled some, too, to Mexico at least, and around Texas.
To engage in armchair psychology: after the death of his mother it seems that he would have been free to go wherever he wanted. Do you think he was really that unhappy with his life? Do you think he suffered from depression or something?
MF: Now we're getting into Blood & Thunder territory. Basically, yeah, there's evidence to suggest that he was suicidal for at least eight years prior to the death of his mother. We're talking about clinical depression, of course, so that no matter how many stories he sells, no matter how many fan letters he gets, the world is a crappy place and not getting any better. That's the real cognitive disconnect, and it was something that he dealt with for years.
DS: But I thought depression came with manic phases. Howard's output was pretty consistent. Wouldn't he have had stretches where he just couldn't drag himself out of bed?
MF: Sure, there's a real up-and-down pattern to his working history. And I mean, I don't think REH was diagnosable as bipolar. That was fashionable about ten years ago. It was thought that everyone great who killed themselves had it. I think that REH just worked that way. I mean, sure, there's a tendency there in his behavior, but it's not much different than any writer who gets on a writing jag. Other pulp writers had similar outputs, if not greater. Lester Dent kept multiple typewriters in his house, and went from room to room, pounding away on the story. When one quit, or overheated, or whatever, he moved to the other one. When it was time for lunch, he went to the breakfast nook and typed in there.
By comparison, REH just sat there. Fits and starts. But when he got going, it was an all-day thing. If he wrote a story a day that way, he could mail out five manuscripts on Saturday. We don't know much about his work habits, but he probably wrote until he was finished with the story. Hence the long hours.
I think the exhaustion was a part of his long breaks. I mean, he pounds the typewriter that long for two weeks straight, he's gonna wanna get up and do something else. Or just rest until he hears from the editors.
> DS: On the subject of Blood and Thunder, I imagine that this was a complicated project; how did it come about? Were there any eyewitnesses left?
MF: Not by the time I'd started on the project. I was approached by Chris Roberson in late 2004 to do a REH book for the centennial. At the time, I had been discussing a critical anthology, and I thought, "Cool, that's what he wants me to do." Then Chris said, "No, I want a bio. And, you know, some literary criticism. And some of your pet theories. But with that patented Mark Finn flair."
Well, that scared the bejeezus out of me. But really, as soon as he said "biography," I started thinking about what I would do if I could write a biography. And real quick, the idea of using my thesis (old hat among the dedicated Inner Circle of Howard Fandom, but new to everyone else) that Robert, as a Texas writer, has been overlooked by the luminaries of Texas literature, and Robert, as a Texan, has been unfairly judged for things that Texans do that maybe other people don't, took hold.
I've been talking about the Texas-ness of Robert's work for a while, and other folks have done some work in that area, and so it seemed like a natural. I didn't want to tell a warts-and-all biography; de Camp did that, and it didn't go over so well. Instead, I decided that my book would be, for better or worse, a reaction to de Camp's book. But still really accessible to someone coming in from the outside, too.
DS: Speaking of which, what's your opinion of the movie The Whole Wide World? Me? I loved it. Was it particularly accurate in its portrayal of REH?
MF: I loved it, too! Yeah, I think that they got far more stuff right, and tried to do REH right in spirit. It's a great intro/primer for anyone interested in the man behind Conan.
DS: Speaking of visceral, when I watched it, I was with a group of friends. Dork that I am, I assumed everybody knew how it had to end. Wrong! My friends looked like they had taken a hard punch to the gut. I felt a little guilty about it, honestly.
MF: Oh, man. I get all mushy about it, and I KNOW what happens! Every time I watch the movie, I have to leave the room earlier and earlier. I finally showed it to my parents while I was writing the book, and mom came into the kitchen after it was over and whacked me on the arm. "Why didn't you tell me that was going to happen?" she yelled. I said, "You know what this book's about! I thought you knew!" It was pretty funny, but yeah, if you're not ready for it, it's a bombshell. Much, I suspect, like how it was to REH's friends.
DS: That brings up a good point. Did he have a lot of friends? I know he had correspondence with a lot of people, but did he have friends around town?
MF: Yeah, he did. He had a few friends in Cross Plains: Lindsey Tyson and Dave Lee were his running buddies. They didn't read nor care for the stuff that REH wrote. Not really. He was just "Bob" to them. In Brownwood, he had his "intellectual" friends: Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith. And later, of course, Novalyne Price. And then there were other friends who lived close by, or at least in Texas: Austin Newton, Earl Baker, Harold Preece.
This of course doesn't account for the folks he was cordial, if not friendly, to on a daily basis. He seemed to get along with Jack Scott, the editor of the Cross Plains Review, well enough. They had an apparently amicable history together. His father's colleagues all knew him. He was, probably to his detriment, one of the better known people in town. Big guy, strapping, kinda handsome in a boyish way, the son of the town doctor...and what's he doing with himself? He stays at home, with his mother, typing out stories. Well, you can see how it would have looked to a township that was all work, all the time, just to make ends meet. But I digress.
The correspondence is valuable, too, because many of his penpals were fellow writers, folks who were doing what he was doing, and "got" what he was trying to do. That sort of praise (as you know) is crucial to whether or not someone stays the course. REH getting letters from Lovecraft, E. Hoffmann Price, and later, Clark Ashton Smith, came at the right time in his career, I think. He needed someone other than the folks in the letters columns of Weird Tales to tell him that he was doing good work.
DS: Why all the hate for L. Sprague de Camp from REH fans? It seems to me that he brought a lot of Howard's work to light, and provided valuable (although perhaps not incredibly accurate) information about him to the world.
MF: Well, yeah, he did a lot in that arena, but there were always caveats. Whenever de Camp wrote an essay about Howard (or gave a lecture, or what-have-you), he always led with Robert's faults as a writer—and depending on the topic, sometimes it was comments on his writing style, or sometimes it was speculations on his mental state and how that might have affected him as a writer. De Camp sure did promote REH...I just wish he'd been nicer about it.
DS: Any quick google search on REH will invariably lead to REHupa (Robert E. Howard United Press Association). This is a loose confederation of fans and fanzines, right? Is it some kind of proto-fan-fiction? Do things like this exist for other authors?
MF: Okay, this is fun. I'm a member of REHupa. This is an APA (amateur press association). We basically pretend like the internet never happened. Once every two months, the members of the APA produce a 'zine or a newsletter or somesuch, and then they make copies equal to the membership (in our case, thirty). We then send our stacks of 'zines to the Official Editor, who then collates the 'zines into 30 bundles of one 'zine each. This is slapped into an envelope and mailed back to us. We then read the 'zines and comment on them in the next mailing.
It's as socially retarded an exercise as I've ever been involved in. But, if you want the skinny on projects, essays, research, and the like, most of the best and brightest REH scholars and critics are in REHupa. And they are all great guys, to boot. I love 'em. Many of them have become good friends over the years. There's always a few chuckleheads in the APA doing fanfic, or mouthing off about how so-and-so's Conan isn't really Conan because Conan would never blah-blah-blah. But by and large, there's good critical content in every issue of REHupa.
DS: It takes a lot of work to pretend the internet never happened...that's a dedicated group of folks.
MF: I've long suspected there's something wrong with us. Well, we don't really pretend the Internet ever happened. Most of us are all online and talk regularly. But the very act of Ďzining and participating in APAs is a descent into willfully archaic behavior. One of our midst tried to start an electronic (meaning online) version: REH-E-PA. It's still out there. The results were mixed because, really, at the heart, it's just a website update. But the idea is sound. I wish REHupa had a stronger Internet presence.
DS: I didn't catch all the details, but there was some award given out at the World Fantasy Convention that many people in REHupa felt snubbed a very deserving individual. What was the scoop on that?
MF: Yeah, the person in question was Glenn Lord, the man most responsible for getting REH out there for people to collect and write in APAs over. Lord was at the convention as a guest of honor, but the fact that the Lifetime Achievement award didn't go to him, during REH's Centennial, and at the REH-Themed World Fantasy Convention, is a travesty of the first order.
I don't blame the judges, not really, and not in total. They voted on what they could do, and since that particular committee decided early on that they weren't interested in the least in the theme of the convention, then there was no impetus for them to choose Glenn Lord from the small list of names they were provided.
This could have been avoided (and I sincerely hope gets fixed) by not giving the judges a vote in the lifetime achievement award. Instead, make that an honor bestowed by the administrators of the WFC award. That way, it'll go to the person who really did a lifetime's worth of work. Not John Crowley, who wrote one book of dubious distinction twenty years ago and has since hopped over into the mainstream. In his acceptance speech (delivered by proxy since he couldn't show up) he confessed a little puzzlement at winning a Lifetime Achievement award, as if it indicated he was through writing, which he assured us (by proxy) that he was not.
It's not necessarily a retirement award, but it does imply that someone has been around for a very long time--like a grand master, or something. Ah, well. It's too late for Glenn this year. Maybe next year, the rules governing the Lifetime Achievement award will be changed. I know this much: the REH fans did a credible job of writing up Glenn for the honor.
So, it obviously passed under someone's nose that the folks attending wanted Glenn to get it.
DS: Just to clarify—was Lord behind getting REH's work reissued? I can see it from both sides: you'd hate to have the judges constrained by the theme of the convention (although that may happen anyway for all I know), but at the same time, you'd like to think that it could open a door for honoring work in speculative fiction that may not be so high-profile.
MF: Glenn did everything not specifically Conan-related, and even then, he did some of that, too. If you read any other work by REH from 1965 to about 1995, that was Glenn. He provided typescripts, made deals to include REH in anthologies, got books together, wrote introductions, published a bio-bibliography, encouraged fans and publishers...and he continues to help, to this day. Glenn is the hub around which modern Howard publishing rotates. That's why it was such a blow.
DS: People who deride speculative fiction, and fantasy fiction in particular, often point to Conan as an example of the worst the genre has to offer. Mindless slaughter! Monsters! Two-dimensional characters who don't "grow as people". Blatant titillation! Vicious sexism! Loincloths! What's your response to that? Are the book covers Conan's own worst enemies, or reflections of what's to be found inside the book?
MF: No, the worst enemies of Conan and Robert E. Howard are the countless number of lesser imitators, many of whom had the dubious distinction of writing Conan pastiches. Thankfully, that nonsense has stopped. However, the success of Conan the Barbarian produced a slew of crappy sword-and-sandal knockoff straight-to-video movies that kept oiled musclemen in steroids through most of the '80s. Hey, I like sword and sorcery and I can't watch that crap!
But for real sword and sorcery, for the actual descendants of Conan, you can look no further than such luminaries as Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Karl Edward Wagner, and David Gemmell. I challenge anyone to call those folks hacks. No, the people who protest Conan have never read REH's Conan, or (fairly common) they haven't read the book closely. There's a lot more to REH's work than meets the eye. If you get hung up on the bloody sword, you're going to miss the political intrigue and pointed comments about civilization.
But as for book covers in general, aren't they all bad (John Picacio excepted, of course)? I mean, how many of the current fantasy books on the shelves right now have a guy in a cloak holding a sword and riding a horse on the cover? I just described half of Robert Jordan's books, right there.
Fantasy cover marketing strategies are abominable. Cookie-cutter artwork, telling nothing, showing the same old thing, over and over again. If you like elves, just look for the pointed ears! Chicks with swords turn you on? Here you go. It's all pretty plastic.
DS: You bring up a good point. I guess the marketing and the covers go in cycles. A quick look through the sf/f section at my local Borders shows a lot of covers with women running with wolves and horses and unicorns and such.
Back to the Conan covers, I like the Frazetta paintings better than the Vallejo artwork. I think the cover of Conan 1 captures that visceral feeling of REH's writing very well. Also, this is how Howard most often describes Conan—he's not huge, he's "pantherish".
MF: Well, Frazetta hung the moon, didn't he? And I'll freely admit that from a technical level, no one holds an airbrush to Boris. But I hate Vallejo. I can't stand him because he wants to pose a bodybuilder, shoot a picture, paint that picture exactly, and add a loincloth. That's not a fantasy cover. Nor is it particularly imaginative.
The Del Rey REH books are blessed with some particularly fine artists: Gary Gianni, Mark Schultz, and Greg Manchess did the three Conan volumes, and they are really excellent in that iconic, classic American illustration kind of way. Especially the Gianni books. Man, that's like those old illustrated books from the turn of the century by Howard Pyle and...dammit, what's the other Brandywine artist's name? Oh, hell. This is embarrassing. Wyeth! Whew.
Anyway. Even the new book, Kull, is illustrated by Justin Sweet. And he delivered, I think, the best artwork of his career. Illustrative and expressive. That's what these new guys are doing with REH's works. And that's largely how Frazetta worked, too. So, maybe Frazetta will always be the definitive Conan artist, but what these new artists have done is both respectful of the subject matter and also honest in execution. In many cases, it's a personal best. Howard tends to bring that out of like-minded artists.
DS: And if you were to recommend three Conan stories to win people over, what would they be?
Those are, to me, among the best Conan stories and hook you in right away.
DS: And out of REH's body of non-Conan work, where would you want to point the curious, casual fan?
MF: I'd say, "The Shadow of the Vulture", "Wild Water", and "Sailor Costigan and the Destiny Gorilla".
Really, you can't go wrong these days. It's all laid out for you. The boxing stories are collected in a couple of great paperbacks. I did the intro to one, and my buddy Chris Gruber did the editing and intro on the other. REH's serious and funny westerns are out, as well as his historical crusades stories (and they are awesome, by the way). Then there's Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Kull... Without touching the sword and sorcery of Conan, you can find adventure and danger and magic in most of the other books. I heartily recommend Kull as an antidote to Conan. Very cerebral.
DS: What do you think of the Dark Horse Conan comics?
MF: I think they've done a great job with the series so far. Good choices on writers and artists. I'm contributing essays for their trade collections, and that's been nice, too. Very old school, like the old Savage Sword of Conan. That was Busiek's idea, to do that, and he contacted me after we met in 2003 when I gave him a copy of my wedding comic at a WizardWorld. We had talked a bit online about Conan, and he in turn was really respectful of the material.
DS: I like most of what they've done. I give real credit to the artists. But it grates against my nerves when they do stories about Conan as a boy. And I was sorely disappointed in the sword-woman (whose name I can't even remember), and even the thief-girl in the latest storyline can't just be a thief, she has to be a magical sorcerer's apprentice thief. It's like the writers just can't let the girls play by the same rules.
MF: I think REH would agree with you, and when they eventually get to some of the later REH stories, you'll see that the way Howard wrote women isn't always stereotypical.
DS: On that thread, didn't he also write some historical settings about a French swords-woman? And, wasn't one of the main protagonists of many of his boxing stories black?
MF: Yep. You got it. "Sword Woman" is, I think, one of his best and most interesting stories, because he rails completely against the hegemony with this she-cat of a French woman. It's great; it really is. Proto-feminist stuff at its best. But how do you reconcile that with the several slave girls and otherwise gauzily-draped women of some of the lesser Conan tales? Well, here's something to consider: Farnsworth Wright would often feature on the cover of Weird Tales the story with the most-unclothed woman. During the time of the Conan stories, Seabury Quinn was frequently tying up and menacing maidens in his Jules de Grandin series. So, basically, if Robert wanted the cover of Weird Tales, in the helpless maiden had to go. "Sword Woman," by contrast, never sold in REH's lifetime.
So, you have to ask yourself, how much of what's in Robert's stories is an attempt to cater to the marketplace? He knew Weird Tales like the back of his hand, and Wright still rejected stories outright. As an author, I think, Robert handled women and minorities as even-handedly as he could. Doesn't always mean he wasn't insensitive about it, but Robert modeled himself on the pioneers of Texas, who had a "give every man his due" kind of mentality. I think Robert tried to do that in his fiction.
DS: One of the things that, I think, gave the Conan stories such a punch back in the day was that he didn't get bogged down with all his emotional baggage—there was no "event" that set him on the road of the hero's journey. He was a pretty standard Cimmerian who happened to get captured in a border raid and upon escaping found himself in a foreign land. Aaaand adventure!
It's nice and clear, why muddy it with trying to get something more "epic"? Which is what I fear they are trying to set up in the comic.
MF: That's a good point, right there. And it starts skirting the tricky area of pinning down a definition of sword and sorcery. Most people can't tell you what sword and sorcery is (but Howard Jones comes really close), but they can tell you what sword and sorcery isn't. And with few exceptions, what's missing from S&S is the quest narrative. Oh, it creeps in from time to time, but it's always truncated, modified, or compromised in some way.
Notice how with very few exceptions the Conan stories take place in the span of one day, or one night, or a few hours. That short, episodic compression of time is, to me, one of the more overlooked elements in S&S. Leiber's Nehwon stories are the same way. They are events, that could just as well have started with, "Oh, this one time, we were all coming back from an adventure, when..."
DS: That short span of time that the stories take place in also served to complement Howard's style. Tying it back to that visceral feel and nonchalant truth we talked about—as a boy reading those stories it was easy to believe that with only two pages left, it may well end with Conan getting killed by some guard.
MF: That's right. Anything could happen. You can still be surprised by REH stories—Conan, too, but really, any of them. Many people have said, over the years, "'Pigeons From Hell'? What kind of stupid name is that for a story?" and then they read it and get the crap scared out of them. It's that good.
Howard Jones, the new managing editor for Black Gate, has offered up the idea that S&S is in fact men's adventure fiction. I don't know if I completely agree with that, but I think it's a really valid way of looking at the genre. It links S&S up with the gunfighter archetype, the samurai archetype, and the man-of-action archetype. By that definition, you could categorize Raiders of the Lost Ark as modern-day sword and sorcery. It owes as much to Solomon Kane as anything else.
DS: Well, Spielberg was trying to capture a real "pulp" feel with Raiders, and so Howard's works, and his contemporaries, were probably influences.
MF: It's funny, but my father-in-law is a rabid fan of the cliffhanger serials. I mean, he's nuts for them. And we talk about Raiders all the time, and how it was a post-modern cliffhanger serial.
Howard loved the movies. He watched them whenever he could, though he didn't like a lot of what he saw. Mostly, he hated the westerns, with the false romance. We're talking early days of Hollywood, and the Golden Age of the Studio System. I'm sure he watched some of the serials in the Ď30s. I've never been able to confirm that he actually saw King Kong in 1933. You'd think he would have mentioned that.
DS: In your book you home in on the idea that REH and his writing were unique by-products of being in, and brought up in, Texas. Explain!
MF: The biggest, most overlooked influence on REH was the tall tale traditions in which he grew up. You've heard me talk. When I drink, I get boisterous. I start telling stories. "Spinning yarns," it was called, and Robert grew up surrounded by them. If you want a tangible example of what I'm talking about, go get any of his funny stories and start reading them out loud. Don't worry about the Texas accent—that'll come, once you start saying the words out loud. It's amazing how his fiction comes to life by speaking the words.
The other thing that completely colored Howard's worldview was the oil booms of Texas and what they did to the state. Howard was there on the ground, and he saw the damage first-hand, and he hated it. It became a metaphor for civilization, and that corruptive influence finds its way throughout most of his larger series.
There's more to it: he used local and state history in his works. He wrote from a populist slant for his hero-kings. He used Texans as characters, from Sailor Steve Costigan to Francis X. Gordon—El Borak, the gunfighter-turned-scout in Afghanistan. Texas is everywhere in Howard's life, and likewise, in his life's work.
DS: Wait a second. If Texas has such a rich tradition in tall tales, why was REH such an outcast for being a writer?
MF: Good question! See, in Texas, one of the first skills you learn is the ancient and venerable art of bullshitting. And Texans are famous for it. Everyone here can do it, especially if you're from a small town, but some folks can do it way better than others. Howard's dad was apparently very good at it, and since he saw everyone in his capacity as a doctor, everyone knew him and liked him.
This is something to keep in mind: Texas culture wasn't seriously considered until the late 1920s when folks like J. Frank Dobie and Mody Boatright and the Texas Folklore Society started earnestly studying Texas fables and stories and realizing that while a lot of regional folklore may have started in Ireland or Kentucky or wherever, when it got to Texas, it changed. There is a uniqueness to our oral traditions.
Back in Howard's day, this stuff was just starting to be published in earnest. But writing for magazines just wasn't a concern to most people, who only maybe had one book in their home, and everyone could share that one—meaning, the Bible. Consider this: in the 1940s, only 2% of all of the books published in the United States were bought in Texas. Now, when REH died, he had over 300 books in his possession. You see what I'm talking about? He was pretty at odds with his neighbors, culturally.
DS: What kind of damage are we talking about with the oil booms? Environmental? General corruption? It seems that REH owed a bit to the oil booms, since he often called Conan a composite of the oil-rig toughs that came with the boom.
MF: It's funny to me that the thing that provided REH with so much grist for his personal mill was the thing that he was most violently opposed to. Boomtowns in those days were all alike; with the boom came gamblers, prostitutes, vice, corruption (civic, as well as corporate), graft, criminal activity of all kinds and more. It changed the population of these small, god-fearing towns. Roughnecks pushed people around and got their way. Bootlegged hooch and beer was freely dispensed, and the law looked the other way, because it was paid well to do so. The lawless element took over many a town. And Robert was in that environment for half of his life. Is it any wonder that he had such a reaction to it?
DS: Perhaps one of the only things that I don't like about the original REH stories is his views on civilization. Or maybe it would be better to say that the way he expresses Conan's views on civilization. Howard does a great job of showing the corruption—but when he talks about it, it comes across as weirdly ill-informed and preachy.
MF: Well, it's not for everyone. I know that. And I think that's fine, really, provided that you recognize that fact. For example: you tell me, "I love his writing, but don't like his outlook." I can get behind that statement 100 percent. But if you say, "Oh, Howard is just wrong in his thinking about civilization..." Well, I disagree. He was writing from the places he knew best—boomtowns. And in many cases, the hypocritical aftermath, wherein folks pretended like nothing bad had happened. Brigands assumed seats of importance as folks forgot the dirty deals he made to get there. That's what REH had a problem with. In fact, I'll go so far as to suggest that he didn't have another viewpoint from which he could write.
DS: Coupled with Howard's clinical depression, you can see how his relentlessly gloomy worldview, and the worldbuilding in Conan's Hyborian Age, came about. Human cultures and civilizations struggling against one another, slaughtering barbarians lest they be overrun by them, and then a cataclysm hits that nearly destroys everything. Repeat.
MF: Yes, exactly. Howard read history books all the time, and he saw those patterns emerging. And, for all we know, they are still in progress...
DS: Oh, I read an article that talks about large asteroid impacts being a lot more common than was once thought. One even happened about 3,000 years ago. The damage it would have done to the coastal societies, and the extended damage through weather pattern changes, are right out of Howard's cataclysms that destroyed Atlantis and eventually brought the Hyborian Age to an end. Keen!
I wonder what he would have thought about the theory that asteroid impacts killed the dinosaurs, had he lived long enough to hear it? In fact, where do you think his career might have gone if he had lived another twenty years?
MF: I wonder, too. It would have been interesting to see his reaction to the Atlantis-debunking, the rise and fall of Hitler, and his reaction to Communism.
I think that REH was getting ready to really stop writing about Texas in metaphor and just write about Texas. Either as westerns, or contemporary stories, like his brilliant "Wild Water," or something along those lines.
The real question is, would REH have made the transition to paperback books? I think he would have. The pocket book format would have suited him just fine. His best stuff tends to be in the forty to sixty thousand word range. Can you imagine? Maybe he would have gone back to historical fiction; it would have played better as a book.
DS: You mentioned god-fearing citizens. REH is even less sympathetic to religion and priests than Stephen King! Off the top of my head, I don't recall a single good priest or priestess in his books. Did you uncover anything about Howard's religious views in your research?
MF: That's an interesting observation, and I think I know where it comes from. The church was another form of societal control, along with school and the law. And at least two of those institutions could be bought and asked to look the other way. So, when you consider that the church was another kind of authority, it's no wonder that it was fair game for REH's stance on things. He also had a problem with hypocrisy, the man who, for example, gives his heart to Jesus on Sunday and gives his money to the bootleggers on Friday. So, I think any time REH could subvert the social order, or at least comment on the status quo, he was going to do it.
Take Solomon Kane, the Puritan Wanderer doing God's work. As soon as he gets to Africa, who does he hook up with? N'Longa, a witch doctor who gives him a Ju-Ju Staff. And it saves his life. Kane comes to rely on it and N'Longa's help in vanquishing the monsters of Africa. That his character is pretty damn open to "heathen magic" is, to me, a clear indicator that he thought there was more to it all than a single (Southern Baptist) god.
His father was pretty religious; he read extensively on the subject. And Robert knew the Bible fairly well, along with the major themes and characters therein. But he wasn't a practicing Christian. I think he was fairly agnostic, but he certainly kept an open mind to other ideas, like reincarnation, racial memories, and similar ideas that were "New Age" even back then.
DS: To move away from REH and his creations for a bit, let's talk about your work. In addition to "Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard", you're a fiction writer in your own right. What have you got out there, and what are some of your current projects?
MF: Two collections of stories, now out of print, called Gods New and Used and Year of the Hare. Those came out of the late, lamented Clockwork Storybook collective that I did with Bill Willingham, Chris Roberson, and Matthew Sturges. Of course, those guys are all doing their cool things right now, so it's just as well that we split up when we did.
Many short stories, including "The Bridge of Teeth" which got honorable mention in Dozois' Year's Best of 2006. I'm currently working on a mystery novel. And I'll never give up writing short fiction, because I love it, but I am finally getting aggressive about sending it around.
After two years of writing nonfiction, I'm really aching for some good old-fashioned made-up fiction.
DS: Did you read an excerpt from "Bridge of Teeth" at ArmadilloCon 2005? It sounds familiar. It was also way cool.
MF: Thank you, yes, I did. I think I read the whole thing.
DS: You've also read excerpts from a kind of Gorilla/Stuntman book you're working on. How did the idea and the setting come about?
MF: Well, I wanted to do a mystery, and I love period pieces. Hollywood in the 1930s was it for me. So, I had this idea about one of the (literally) handful of guys who played gorillas in the movies. Guys in the suits. I thought it'd be interesting to have a real oddball, kind of Fredric Brown kind of protagonist, in the gorilla suit, and also needing to solve the crime to save his own neck. So, it's set in 1936, on the set of a cliffhanger serial for a third-rate company, and that's how Clay Stark gets his big break. When the "King of the Gorilla Men" is murdered, Clay becomes the Replacement Gorilla. And that's the working title, Replacement Gorilla.
DS: You are also Creative Director for the Violet Crown Radio Players. What do they do, and how did you get involved?
MF: We're a radio drama theater troupe, which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days. We dress in period costumes, and using vintage noisemakers and sound effects, recreate the Golden Age of Radio for a live audience, complete with studio emergencies and actor in-fighting...it's all part of the show. I've written a number of radio scripts to decent critical acclaim. And the show I'm most proud of, the Lux Radio Theater version of King Kong, was nominated for an Austin Circle of Theaters B. Iden Payne award for best sound production. For a radio troupe, that's the award you want!
DS: So do you do old broadcasts of The Shadow and such, or is it all new material? Surely in this era of podcasting and YouTube there are copies of your shows available, right? Don't leave us hanging here!
MF: Oh yeah, there's stuff out there. We're still sorting out the podcast model, but you can listen to and buy stuff at www.violetcrownradio.com. All of what we are selling is original material, except in two or three instances, where we are dealing with either fair usage, public domain, or permissioned material. The stuff I'm most tickled with, of course, is the adventures of Sailor Steve Costigan. But the horror shows are fun, too, and I'm the series writer for The Blue Menace Mysteries. I've got a lot of irons in the fire.