2After participating in the Howard Days panel about the Lancer Conan series,  I realized quite a few are interested in Lancer Books and the later Zebra Books. The presentation (and my previous article) concentrated on Frazetta’s influence, but now let’s talk a little more about Irwin Stein and Walter Zacharius, the founders of Lancer Books.

Irwin Stein had a journalist background but had an affinity for comic books and science fiction. He wrote for Quality Comics (chiefly known for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man) and later the romance comics line for St. John. When he left comic books to start his own company, Royal Publications, he published genre magazines (men’s adventures, detective, SF, monsters).

4Stein and Zacharime partners somewhere along the line. They formed Magnum Communications Corporation. One of their first purchases was Swank Magazine. Martin Goodman (Timely/Atlas/Marvel) was the owner at that time. Swank had a reputation as a quality men’s magazine. Aficionados of these things say the quality took a slightly downward slide after their takeover. Magnum Publications include Untamed, Lion Adventures and True War.

They then started Lancer Books in 1961. Later Stein hired Larry Shaw as editor. Shaw was instrumental in acquiring the Conan series and in getting Frazetta to illustrate the first cover. Mr. Shaw was honored with a special Hugo Award for lifetime achievement in 1984, a year before his death.

The early Lancer books had a distinctive green (often bluish looking) edge around the pages. 1962 saw the start of the Lancer Science Fiction Library. These sold for 75 cents at a time when most paperbacks were only 50 cents. Lancer realized they were pitching to a specialty market that would pay a premium. In 1966 they began publishing paperback originals with the purple colored edges. One notable entry was Michael Moorcock (writing as Edward P. Bradbury) doing a Martian series that owed a great deal to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

For Robert E. Howard fans, the key year was 1966, and the publication of Conan the Adventurer.  There is no need to rehash that story again; suffice to say everyone knew that the Frazetta cover was a smash!

Stein in an interview, from Confessions, Romances, Secrets, and Temptations: Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics by John Benson, talks about that first Conan painting:

Yes, those covers really put him on the map, I think. He was known mostly to the fans at the time. I tried to keep one of the paintings, and he threatened to come up with a gun. Well, most of the cover artists, if you said you liked something, they’d say, “Keep it.”  What the hell, they had very little residual value at the time. But Frazetta always had a huge sense of his own worth. And rightfully so. Generally, there were very few that I really wanted to keep for myself. But that was one of them, and I asked him for it.

In 1968 they reissued Conan the Adventurer and issued Conan the Wanderer at 95 cents. From the fanzine, Megavore, which featured a Lancer SF Checklist in their 10th issue comes this comment:

It tells you something about the popularity of the series that Lancer could jump the price so rapidly and not have to worry about the effect it would have on sales.

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Lancer was doing well and besides the Conan books published Howard’s King Kull, The Dark Man and Others, and Wolfshead. Larry Shaw left Lancer in 1968. He was replaced by Robert Hoskins. Hoskins, apparently a fan of S&S, edited an anthology Swords Against Tomorrow for Signet Books that mentions REH as a literary descendant of Homer.

conan-the-adventuer11971 saw the change from purple edges to yellow and 1973 brought with it the bankruptcy.

The details of the bankruptcy can probably be found with enough patience and access to legal archives but suffice to say Lancer Books was no more. Magnum Communications Corporation continued on with various publishing ventures and at least three other non-publishing ventures: Vacation Ownership Marketing; Capital Solutions I, and Fuda Faucet Works.

Gerald Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book tells the story of Harry Donnenfeld. Donnenfeld started National (DC) comics. Donnenfeld apparently had ties to gangster Frank Costello. New York publishers bought a lot of paper shipped from Canada. Canada was in full liquor production during the failed U.S. experiment of prohibition. Along with shipments of paper there was plenty of booze. So pretty much all publishers of exploitation literature (comics, pornography, and men’s adventures) have rumors of mob money.

3As mentioned before Stein and Zacharius purchased Swank from Martin Goodman (of Marvel Comics fame) and Stein worked for various comic book companies. So, yes, they traveled in the same circles as Donnenfeld and others that might have had mob ties. No doubt pornography publishing makes strange bedfellows, but no real evidence of organized crime exists. There was the occasional article in the SFWA Bulletin newsletter about Lancer not paying royalties and offering lame excuses and after the Lancer bankruptcy their remaining publishing arm, Magnum Books, republished books from the Lancer catalog that were in violation of previous contracts. So there were shady-doings but nothing that other publishers had not set as a precedent.

After the Lancer bankruptcy Walter Zacharius chose to start the Kensington Publishing Corporation (which included Zebra Books) with a new partner, Roberta Grossman. Apparently there was a falling out with Stein but other than a very brief mention in Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present by John Markert not much has been said.

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Zebra Books published 14 REH books:

  1. The Sowers of the Thunder
  2. Tigers of the Sea
  3. Worms of the Earth
  4. A Gent From Bear Creek
  5. The Vultures of Whapeton
  6. The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan
  7. The Lost Valley of Iskander
  8. The Iron Man
  9. The Book of Robert E. Howard
  10. The Second Book of Robert E. Howard
  11. Pigeons From Hell
  12. Black Vulmea’s Vengeance
  13. The Sword Woman
  14. Three Bladed Doom

According to Leon Nielsen in Robert E. Howard: A Collector’s Descriptive Bibliography:

[the] books were selling so well that Zebra capitalized on its success by adding the line, “Heroic fantasy in the tradition of ROBERT E. HOWARD” to the front cover of any book that might fit loosely into the category of heroic fantasy.

Second only to Frazetta as a fan favorite, most of the REH Zebra books featured art by Jeff Jones. Even the most conservative REH fan would probably let Jeff Jones go to the public restroom of his choosing.

Jeff Jones was a troubled fellow with loads of artistic talent. If Frazetta was power, then Jones was poetry. I think it is possible he could surpass Frank Frazetta as a REH fan favorite one day. His best work is breathtaking if not always true to the story.

Walter Zacharius was always an innovator. Early in his career he helped start the Ace Double Novel line (along with Aaron Wyn), and with Kensington he signed deals with Wal-Mart and QVC, and made the first forays into e-books.

One of his more exploitative tricks was during the height of Lee Iacocca’s success with the automobile corporation, Chrysler. Iacocca was popularly known as an innovative entrepreneur (there was talk of him running for President, as if Americans would vote for someone with no political experience!). He had a best-selling autobiography eating up the sales chart. Zacharius republished a previously little read paperback with the same title and it ended up as one of the best selling paperbacks of 1985.

Even with his other successes the Lancer Conan series was a hallmark. His New York Times obituary had this to say in summing up his accomplishments:

With Irwin Stein, he founded Lancer Books in 1961 to publish genre fiction, primarily science fiction and fantasy, notably the “Conan the Barbarian” stories of Robert E. Howard…

The New York Times knew “those were books!”

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Most Howard scholars could probably write an entire treatise on the things they wish they had related to Robert E. Howard’s work, starting with more of everything from a gifted author who died too young.

In amongst all those predictable wishes I could name is a minor but nagging one – that we had more information about his composition of the story Gates of Empire. Surviving correspondence discusses many of his historicals, but little related to this one has come down to us, and that’s a shame, because there’s nothing quite like it in the entire Robert E. Howard canon.

It’s a historical, but while it has detailed and thrilling action, it’s not grim and moody. It’s humorous, but its tone has scant in common with Howard’s Western tales, which are so exaggerated that they clearly aren’t meant to be taken seriously, or even his humorous boxing stories, which, while not quite as embellished as the western yarns, still are many more steps removed from reality. Gates of Empire is both an action adventure and a comic send-up, and it’s a marvelous little tale.

It stands alone, a class by itself in Howard’s work, showing us another kind of tale Howard might have succeeded in, had he the interest, the time, and the market.

The story might very well have come off as grim and relentless as Howard’s more famous historicals, the famous four adventures that immediately preceded it in composition: “The Sowers of the Thunder,” “Lord of Samarcand,” “The Lion of Tiberias,” and “The Shadow of the Vulture.” But with its witty, bumbling ne’er do well protagonist, Giles Hobson, in the driver’s seat, it becomes an entirely different sort of adventure almost from the very start.

And much as hubris destroys many of the central figures of those four stories, its Giles’s own actions that launch him into adventure, misfortune, and the occasional turn of luck.

A Howard tale often beings in the midst of deadly action, or the plotting of same. Gates of Empire, though, opens with a discussion shared by inebriated servants who’ve invited themselves to the wine in their master’s wine vault. Giles, who’s more clever than his fellows, does lead the others in a plot, but it’s neither meant to unseat a ruler nor obtain riches – it’s a jest meant to get two aristocratic lords fighting each other for no other goal than sheer amusement.

sercerender4Giles may be clever, but he can’t see too much further than the end of his nose, even when sober. Once discovered as the author of the prank he’s forced to flee for his life, and when we see him next he’s been found as an inebriated stowaway aboard a merchant vessel on its way towards the holy land. Once again we find Giles’ planning short sighted, for the owner of the wine he’s been tapping is ready to have him heaved overside.

Fortunately for Giles, the ship soon comes under attack. As arrows fly, mayhem erupts, and men fall to left and right as the Moslem galley closes the distance. The carnage is almost exactly what we’d see in any other Robert E. Howard story, except that we’re getting something of a backstage view. Howard’s not focused on the lone hero or stalwart band who’s readying the defense or the attack. Instead, the camera follows a fellow we might normally have seen simply as a background characters. Arrows miss when Giles bends at just the right moment. He evades getting skewered when he trips and his vast bulk takes down Emir Shirkuh, who mistakes his opponent for a mighty warrior owing to Giles’s vice like hug, desperately thrown about Shirkuh so the redoubtable warrior cannot swing his own blade.

In perhaps this one way Giles could be said to resemble other Howardian heroes, for his strength is remarkable, even if its never used to succeed in bold exploits.

It’s Giles’ tongue that’s his greatest gift, another characteristic uncommon among Robert E. Howard’s characters. Giles may not be adept at long term strategy, but he’s a master of improvisation, soon convincing Shirkuh that he’s a relative of none other than the King of England, a lie that would have proved problematic for other mortals once he’s again with Franks, but Giles passes his first lie off as an exaggeration of his enemies, claiming instead that he’s merely the younger son of a Scottish Baron.

63a9e084e3e7525ebe873f415534f4e9He’s adept at navigating changing circumstance as well, such as when he first wishes to avoid the company of an army riding to war by travelling to Acre until he learns that the lord he’d wronged, Guiscard de Chastillon, commands the city. He quickly claims that “duty calls, and what are weary limbs and an empty belly beside duty? Let me go with you and do my devoir in Egypt!”

I enjoy this story well enough that I’ve written of it before, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a favorite scene that I already covered: the moment Giles is lured from his friends by a lovely dancing girl.

It’s the ideal demonstration of another difference between how Howard presents Giles and how he writes about his other protagonists. For instance, Conan is often a step ahead of us, his readers, whether it be smashing a giant spider with a quickly flung chest or out-thinking a swordsman in the midst of a fight. We’re not sure how Conan will get through, but know that he will, and wait to see how he’ll manage this time. The dangers that come at him are frequently surprises.

Giles, on the other hand, walks into dangers he himself has often created, and that we the readers can see coming a mile away. It’s impossible to imagine Conan unwarily following a woman down a dark hidden passage without suspicion, but Giles does, and we know full well she’s up to no good. He can’t overcome his situations with martial prowess and is unlikely to do so with brawn, so either dumb luck or inspired lying is his only real chance, and it’s a pleasure distinctly different to see how he gets through each challenge.

Howard maneuvers the elements of this story like a master cardsharp, keeping us so busy focused upon other things that each time Guiscard de Chastillon reappears it comes as another shock. The first time Giles encounters him after fleeing, it’s just another challenge amongst all those he’s suffering on the sea seems like it might be the last. The second “encounter” is a mere mention when Giles is offered the sanctuary of Acre, and comes as merely a humorous aside.

4190654_origWhen Giles becomes swept up into a great battle, there’s so much going on around him that Guiscard’s sudden appearance is almost as alarming to the reader as to Giles, and timed to perfection, leading to a climactic moment in the story that may be full of battle, but not owing to a protagonist’s heroic plan or charge! And it’s the enmity between Guiscard and Giles that lies behind a famed charge that ruined a battle and put Shirkuh on his throne, an event lost to history but rendered entirely plausible, as is Shirkuh’s good humored response when he encounters Giles on the battlefield shortly after the victory.

To me it’s always seemed that Howard had mastered the heroic historical fiction story in the preceding four tales and that with Gates he began to experiment with the form to amuse himself. He happened to have amused most readers who’ve chanced upon the story, as well. Unlike other writers who experimented a little with a different style, Howard’s work was a wonderful success. I can only wish that there were a few more just like it. But perhaps its solitary existence is remarkable, and entertaining, enough.

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

1905-rand-mcnally-web

Before getting too far into this, have a look at the section of a 1905 Rand-McNally map above. On the left is Palo Pinto County; near the center of the northern edge is a place called Christian, where a young doctor I. M. Howard practiced in the early 1900s. He also practiced in several nearby communities: Graford, just below Christian about five miles to the south; Oran, about five miles to the east; Whitt, just over the Parker County line to the east of Oran (the little circle next to the vertical “Creek”); and Peaster, Robert E. Howard’s birthplace, about ten miles southeast of Whitt and 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth (off the map to the right). The distance from Christian to Peaster is 25 miles, as the crow flies. On today’s roads, interested travelers can tour all of these tiny towns in one or two hours.

__________

[For a peek at Dr. Howard’s movements before the 1900s, look here.]

After a brief stint in the Indian Territory, where he had most likely gone to help out his favorite sister, Willie, Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard (IMH) returned to Texas, where his Physician’s Certificate was filed for record in Palo Pinto County on January 8, 1902. Polk’s Medical Register and Directory for 1902 has him in both Petersburg, Indian Territory (which I assume is a holdover from a previous notification), and Graford, in Palo Pinto County, population 19. He is the only doctor listed there. The 1904 edition has him still in Graford, but the population has grown to 24, one of that number being another doctor, J. M. Patterson.

But the Polk’s directory doesn’t tell the whole story, and maybe not even the correct story. I’m guessing that the 1902 mention at Graford is probably correct, but by the middle of 1903, IMH was listing his address on birth and death records as Christian, not Graford, which would make the 1904 listing another holdover. Polk’s does list one F. R. Bowles practicing in Christian in 1902 (population 50) and 1904 (population 90), but no IMH. The Standard Medical Directory of North America for 1903-04 lists both IMH and Bowles at Christian. It also adds that IMH was “licensed by examination without college diploma” and began his career in 1899.

And, since the good doctor was listing his address as Christian up to November 21, 1904, it’s safe to assume that that is where he and Hester Jane Ervin made their first home together after their January 12, 1904 marriage. (Today, the only remnant of that town is a road sign, “Old Christian Rd,” about five miles north of Graford.)

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There are no documents to testify where the Howards were from December 1904 to May 1905, but we can hazard a few guesses.

During that time, the number of medical schools in Texas was expanding and Dr. Howard picked up his diploma from Gate City Medical College, over in Texarkana, on May 1, 1905. While “the founders of these schools had the best intentions to offer bona-fide instruction in medical science, [. . .] they had too few resources. Most of them ceased operations or were absorbed by other schools within a short time.” Gate City was closed in 1911 when it was caught selling diplomas, but I think it’s safe to assume that IMH spent a little time in Texarkana before being awarded his. [1]

Also during that time, the newlywed Howards approached IMH’s older brother, David Terrell Howard, about adopting his youngest son. Wallace Howard told L. Sprague de Camp that Dr. and Mrs. Howard, “they come to mama and papa and wanted to take me and raise me as their, their foster son.” [2] David Howard was farming in Limestone County at the time, some 125 miles southeast of Christian, and had quite a large family (six children in 1904, and 12 before he was finished having children in 1919). In 1977, Wallace Howard wondered if he “wouldn’t have been better off” going with the doctor, but nothing came of the plan and before the summer of 1905, Hester would have known that she was pregnant.

Another possibility is Dark Valley, a few miles southwest of Graford. In July 1977, L. Sprague de Camp interviewed Florence Green, who was close to 100-years-old at the time. In his notes, de Camp writes that “Hester and I. M. Howard came from Christian miles away to Dark Valley as a young married.  They lived for several months with Mrs. Green who had a house a few feet away from the creek.” According to Green, the Howards stayed with her until their own place was built, “a little ways down the creek from the Green’s” and when it was time for Hester to give birth, “She went to Peaster, a much bigger town in those days, 1906, and some buggy ride away—a day’s journey—to have the child.” After Robert’s birth, the family returned to Dark Valley for a while, but “[t]hey moved away while Robert was a babe in arms—meaning anywhere from 1-2 years of age.” [3]

There are some problems with Green’s account. There is no record of the Howards buying any land in the vicinity of Dark Valley Creek; why build a home on property they did not own? Mrs. Green also, apparently, didn’t think it was relevant that it was Dr. Howard who recorded the birth of her daughter in 1907 (where he listed Graford on the Record of Birth); at least, it doesn’t show up in de Camp’s notes. Also, in Dark Valley Destiny, de Camp says, “During her pregnancy, Hessie was all smiles and laughter, forever joking with her neighbors, but she never left her husband’s side. She traveled with Dr. Howard wherever he went” (pg. 32), information that must have come from Green, but how would she have known this when, shortly after receiving his diploma, Isaac Howard registered his credentials over in Parker County on May 12, 1905, and his name begins appearing on birth and death records that same month? Hester would only have been about one month pregnant at the time. And Peaster wasn’t the first place they went to in Parker County.

1905-05-23-whitt-parker-web

On May 23, 1905, Dr. I. M. Howard filed a “Report of Death” for a two-day-old child. The doctor’s address is listed as “Whitt.” The 1904 Polk’s directory lists three doctors in Whitt and sets the population at 430, same as the 1906 edition; none of the listed doctors is IMH.

Shortly after his arrival in Whitt, Dr. Howard appears to have partnered with one of those other doctors, J. D. Pickens, as their names appear together frequently on birth and death records in June and July. The last birth record filed by Pickens/Howard is dated July 19; all of these records list IMH’s address as Whitt. After that July 19 filing, the record goes quiet until August 16, 1905, when Dr. Howard was awarded a “Certificate of Registration” from the Texas Board of Pharmacy indicating that he had “given satisfactory evidence that he is a Qualified Pharmacist.” After that, he moved to Peaster.

From late September to just after Christmas 1905, IMH was listing his address on birth and death records as Peaster. Like Whitt, Peaster already had a doctor or two. In fact, besides J. A. Williams, the doctor who recorded Robert E. Howard’s birth, there was also a Dr. J. M. Blackwell, with whom Dr. Howard planned to share office space, as reported in “Peaster Items,” from the Weatherford Weekly Herald for October 19, 1905: 1905-10-19-peaster-items-weatherfordweeklyheraldp5

All three doctors appear in the 1906 edition of Polk’s, which has the population of Peaster pegged at 240. (A July 8, 1921 article in the Cross Plains Review announced Blackwell’s arrival in the area and says that he “comes well recommended for his work. He is an old time friend of Dr. I. M. Howard of this place, and a former partner with him in the practice of medicine.”) All of which begs the question: Why was it Williams and not IMH’s partner, Blackwell, who recorded Robert E. Howard’s birth?  If you’ve read this far, you probably already know the story. The Howards celebrated REH’s birthday on January 22, 1906, but, probably due to a delay in filing, Williams reported the birth as January 24. He filed the document on February 1st.

The last known sighting of the Howards in Peaster is a notice from the February 19 column, “Peaster Pencilings,” which appeared in the February 22, 1906 edition of the Weatherford Weekly Herald: “Dr. Howard is boasting of the only boy baby of Peaster in 1906.” After that, the trail is cold until a May 31, 1906 “Report of Birth” places him back in Graford, which is probably only where he received mail, since he was no doubt living in Dark Valley at the time.

All of the above makes the following paragraph from Dark Valley Destiny a bit shaky:

Robert Ervin Howard was born on January 24, 1906, in Peaster, Texas, a village in Parker County, ten miles northwest of Weatherford and thirty-five miles due west of Fort Worth. The Howards at that time lived in Dark Valley, a community of some fifty souls in Palo Pinto County, near the Parker County border; but Dr. Howard had taken his wife to Peaster, a larger settlement in the adjacent county, as her confinement drew near. He wished, presumably, to insure adequate medical facilities for her lying-in, as well as the services of Dr. J. A. Williams, the physician who attended Mrs. Howard at the birth of her only child. [pg. 18]

Patrice Lounet pointed out the biggest problem with this a few years ago: “If Dr. Howard wanted to ‘ensure adequate medical facilities’ for his wife, Peaster would not have been his first choice, but more likely the much larger Weatherford. Or even halfway from there, Mineral Wells, where physicians would be numerous.” [4] But if not for medical attention, then why?

In a 1977 interview with L. Sprague de Camp, Wallace Howard explained it this way: “The Howards are a moving people.” [5] And I can’t do much better than that. IMH seems to have been constantly on the look for greener pastures, and he never shied away from a dramatic move. Being a doctor himself, and having a partnership with another doctor (even though his partnerships never lasted for long), makes the “adequate medical facilities” argument seem a bit thin. I’m more inclined to believe that IMH saw an opportunity there that just didn’t pan out.

I’m fairly confident that one of the reasons IMH came to the Palo Pinto-Parker region in the first place was the railroad: “The Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern completed twenty-five miles from Weatherford to Mineral Wells in 1891. That year the company owned two locomotives and ninety cars. In 1895 it earned $15,561 in passenger revenue and $38,070 in freight revenue. The line was bought by the Texas and Pacific Railway Company in 1902,” the same year that IMH arrived. [6] And once the mainline was complete, the competition for spurs off of that line began, with rumors and speculation being reported in area newspapers every week; there was even some wild talk of turning the road into “a great transcontinental line” [7]. Of course, nothing quite so grand happened; however, “Construction of an extension of the line to the city of Oran was completed in 1907, and on to Graford the following January.” [8]

weatherford-mineral-wells-northeastern-web[Map courtesy of Abandoned Rails]

It may have been these rumors and speculation that encouraged IMH to begin purchasing land in Palo Pinto County. On October 11, 1905, while living in Peaster, Dr. Howard purchased part of lot 1, block 7 in the town of Oran for $50. This must have been a simple investment since, as we have seen, after leaving Peaster the Howards settled in Dark Valley. IMH listed his residence as Graford on birth and death notices from May 31, 1906 until at least May 5, 1907. But he may have been planning a move even before then.

On January 19, 1907, he purchased Lot 6 in Block 54 of the town of Oran for $45. Then, on May 25, 1907, he spent $200 for lots 7 and 8 in Block 7. A few weeks later, June 14, 1907, IMH and wife Hester sold “the North East one fourth (1/4) of Block Seven (7)” for $300. Sounds like a pretty good deal for the Howards. Not long after that, if not before, the family was living in Oran. From August to December 20, 1907, IMH lists his address as Oran. The week before Christmas, he re-filed his credentials in Palo Pinto County to correct a transcription error in his initials from “S. M.” to the correct “I. M.” Two weeks later, he was in Big Spring, way over in Howard County. The West Texas adventure had begun.

 

NOTES

1: Handbook of Texas Online, D. Clayton Brown, “Medical Education,” accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/sfm02.

2: De Camp, L. Sprague:  “Notes on Interview with Wallace C. Howard in Mart, Texas, 7/22/77,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

3: De Camp, L. Sprague: “Notes from  interview with Mrs. Green and visit to Dark Valley with Mr. John Dean McClure,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

4: Louinet, Patrice: “The Long Road to Dark Valley—Introduction,” accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.rehtwogunraconteur.com/the-long-road-to-dark-valley-introduction/

5: De Camp, L. Sprague:  “Notes on Interview with Wallace C. Howard in Mart, Texas, 7/22/77,” unpublished, housed at HRC.

6: Handbook of Texas Online, Chris Cravens, “Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Northwestern Railway,” accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/eqw08.

7: “Doing Our Best,” The Daily Herald. (Weatherford, Tex.), Vol. 7, No. 218, Ed. 1 Monday, September 24, 1906.

8: The Weatherford, Mineral Wells, Northwestern Railroad Depot, photograph, 1990?; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth29853/: accessed September 11, 2016), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Boyce Ditto Pub

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“After all I have done to keep clean,” she sobbed, “this is too much!  I know I am a monster in the sight of men; there is blood on my hands. I’ve looted and cursed and killed and diced and drunk, till my very heart is calloused. My only consolation, the one thing to keep me from feeling utterly damned, is the fact that I have remained as virtuous as any girl. And now men believe me otherwise. I wish I … I … were dead!”

Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”

Helen Tavrel returned from her eventful, and bloody, cruise to the Low Countries and shared in its profits. Her captain, Troels Hansen, sold the two shiploads of armaments originally meant for Russia, to various rogues of the buccaneer trade in Tortuga and Port Royal. Helen received her share according to the articles of the voyage. Her foster father, Roger O’Farrel, no longer a young man, was living more quietly now. He made his living – for he had medical training – selling well-equipped medical chests to the surgeons of pirate ships.

He had taken a modest amount of land on Tortuga, and a house in the town. He was friendly with the French Governor, Bertrand d’Ogeron. (A Governor d’Ogeron appears in some of Sabatini’s Captain Blood yarns, but anachronistically; the real d’Ogeron died in 1676, in Paris.)  His Cuban servants Ramon and Eulalia, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, had moved to Tortuga with him. So had their daughter Renata, Helen’s closest friend. Renata was about to marry a young French pirate who was leaving the red trade and taking land under d’Ogeron’s scheme. Helen went to their wedding, as did her foster father, and they gave the couple generous presents to start their married life. Helen had a wistful moment or two as she drank to their future. But she was convinced no man existed who could compare to Roger O’Farrel, and her view of her fellow pirates in general was not rosy. Hansen and le Ban were probably the best of a scurvy lot. No, a decent life with a decent husband seemed to be absent from the cards for Helen Tavrel. Even Renata’s man might get restless and desert her someday …

Helen stayed in Tortuga with O’Farrel for a short time. She even considered settling down, but the thought was like a thought of death, too tedious for bearing. She was not twenty yet. She loved the sea and her wild, adventurous life. Her greatest model, her only one, was O’Farrel. Her credo might have been the one Robert E. Howard set down in his poem, “The Day That I Die.”

“And ye that name me in after years,
This shall ye say of me:

“That I followed the road of the restless gull
As free as a vagrant breeze,
That I bared my breast to the winds’ unrest
And the wrath of the driving seas.

“That I loved the song of the thrumming spars
And the lift of the plunging prow,
But I could not bide in the seaport towns
And I could not follow the plow.

“For ever the wind came out of the east
To beckon me on and on,
The sunset’s lure was my paramour
And I loved each rose-pale dawn.”

Ntw_i_sloopNevertheless, the slaughter of the arms ships’ crews made her dreams uneasy sometimes. Helen decided to try her luck as captain of her own craft – a sloop, fast and light, such as those in the trade often found convenient for inshore work. And she decided to raid Havana, where she had once lived, and where O’Farrel had been cheated by the Captain General.  Francisco Oregón y Gascón had ceased to hold the office only that year. The new Captain General, another Francisco (Rodríguez de Ledesma) did not know her or O’Farrel. He was about to.

Helen did not sail directly for Havana. Her pirate sloop was too obviously just that for entry into the city’s harbor, unnoticed and unchallenged, to be possible. Instead she sailed east, to Puerto Rico, where – as in Cuba – there was a huge contraband trade due to the Spanish crown’s taxes on legal commerce.  Off the mountainous island, she successfully waylaid a Spanish nao, called the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación.

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This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

tumblr_m0j3lyVE0P1qbxxuao1_500The Texas of Robert E. Howard was scarcely a generation removed from its frontier heritage.

In May 1934, as Howard’s tale of Conan and Belit, “Queen of the Black Coast,” was on the stands in Weird Tales, a Texas lawman ran down the notorious Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker — Bonnie & Clyde. Frank Hamer tracked the outlaws down and led an ambush that riddled the couple with bullets on a Louisiana farm road.

Hamer was raised a Texas cowboy and got his start in law enforcement as a border-riding Texas Ranger on horseback. The big, powerful Ranger was involved in 52 gunfights as Texas rode bucking and kicking from the 19th into the 20th century.

There were quite a few men that stood with a boot in both centuries, who walked into the modern world with the carriage of a man of the frontier.

Bob Howard was proud to have made the acquaintance of one of these men.

“… in a little town on the plains I met a figure who links Texas with her wild old past,” he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft in 1930. “No less a personage than the great Norfleet, one of modern Texas’ three greatest gunmen — the other two being Tom Hickman and Manuel Gonzalles (sic.), captain and sergeant of the Rangers respectively.”

Tom Hickman and Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas were, indeed, first-rate gunmen. Hamer should have been on Howard’s list, too, but in 1930 his most famous exploit was yet to come. But who was “the great Norfleet”?

James Franklin Norfleet surely was a link with Texas’ wild old past. The son of a Comanche-fighting Texas Ranger, in his youth he had hunted the last buffalo herd in the Llano Estacado and then became a itinerate cowboy working the West Texas range.

Frank Norfleet was clean-living, hard-working and responsible, and in the 1890s he earned a position as foreman of the gigantic Spade Ranch owned by an absentee investor from Illinois named Isaac Ellwood — who would pioneer the manufacture of barbed wire.

In 1894, he met and married Mattie Eliza Hudgins, who moved with him out to the Spade. They had four children, only two of which survived to adulthood.

SpadeSaving his earnings as Spade foreman, Norfleet purchased land of his own, developed it, and raised cattle, mules, hogs, turkeys and a variety of crops. By the time he hit middle age, he was an independent rancher and had bootstrapped himself into considerable wealth.

And then he blew it.

On a trip to Dallas, Texas, to sell some mules, he fell prey to an elaborate con. A ring of five bunco artists set Norfleet up with a complicated combination of land sale and stock swindle, a con that is laid out in detail in Amy Reading’s delightful book “The Mark Inside.”

The con took Norfleet for $45,000, some of it borrowed from his brother-in-law. Worse yet, Norfleet had, in the midst of the con, also purchased land for $90,000 — debt he now had no hope of servicing. In present-day dollars, we’re looking at a cash loss of $560,000 and debt of over $1 million. Big problem.

Realizing what had befallen him, the rancher laid on his hotel-room bed with his mind reeling, a drumbeat pounding in his brain: “$45,000 gone; $90,000 in debt; 54 years old.”

But, being of Texas frontier stock, Norfleet came through his dark night of the soul not in despair but with determination: He would track down the conmen and give them a short, sharp dose of frontier justice.

First he had to go back to the home ranch and break the catastrophic news to Mattie. Tough as Frank, she gave her blessing to his quest — with one proviso: She wanted him to bring the crooks to the courts for trial. “Any fool can kill,” she said.

Following thin leads and rumors, J. Frank Norfleet embarked on a continent-crossing quest that defies credulity. And there’s every likelihood that Norfleet stretched the blanket a bit in telling his tale in his later autobiography. What Texas cowboy can resist making a tale a little taller? But the bones of the story check out in the record.

He found two members of the conman ring in San Bernadino, California, in jail for another scam. He accompanied them back to Fort Worth for trial and saw them sentenced to 10 years in the pen. One of them slashed his own throat rather than serving the time.

furey mugshotsThe man Norfleet wanted most was the ringleader, a longtime con with the picturesque name of Joe Furey. To lure him out, Norfleet set himself up as a rube, a mark, chumming the waters for the circling sharks.

It was a risky ploy. Norfleet got picked out for a con by Furey’s compatriots in Florida, but they got wise to him and Frank had to pull one of his four pistols to escape.

He almost caught Furey in Glendale, California, but the conman bribed two crooked cops to make his escape.

Norfleet finally ran him down, back in Florida, where the Texas rancher and his son Pete confronted the conman with cocked pistols in a restaurant. They got him back to Texas for trial, despite efforts by Furey’s criminal compatriots to spring him.

Nary a shot was fired.

Norfleet was noted as a dead shot, and, as noted above, during his private detective quest he was known to carry as many as four pistols on his person. Every once in a while, he had to pull one as a persuader or to get out of a tight spot. But despite Howard’s assertion that he was one of the great modern Texas gunmen, Norfleet never engaged in a single shootout.

In his letter, Howard states that, “he is now a United States Marshal and his latest exploit was in Chicago where he killed two gangsters who had the drop on him.”

The pulpster had that wrong — though it’s an irresistible image.

Howard described Norfleet accurately: “He is a small, stocky man, about five feet four, I should judge, of late middle age, with a scrubby white mustache and cold light blue eyes, the pupils of which are like pin points. He is a very courteous and soft spoken gentleman and I could not help but notice, as I shook hands with him, that his hands are not of the type usually found in men who are quick with weapons — his hands being very short and blocky in shape. Nor did he have that quick, nervous grip in handshaking that I have noticed in killers. His nerves are in perfect control but in his quick movements he reminds one of a cat, and like all gunfighters, he keeps his hands in constant motion and never very far from his gun.”

norfleet-67The great Norfleet was not quite the warrior Howard imagined him to be, but he was remarkable enough. He built a whole second career out of conning the conmen, luring them, manipulating them and bringing them in for the courts to handle. And he became a bit of a celebrity along the way. He published two editions of an autobiography and Wallace Beery, who once played Pancho Villa, played the role of Norfleet in a radio show.

Norfleet never entirely recovered financially from his 1919 losses, but he lived a satisfying life and retired quietly to a small West Texas farm, where he lived until his death at 102 in 1967.

One likes to imagine him gone to the happy hunting grounds, where he is currently on the trail of a certain Nigerian prince who needs you to help him get some money out of the country…

This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard's Texas, Weird Tales.

Strange-Tales-5

In the 1930s, a circle of weird pulp writers developed an interwoven correspondence, with prominent members including Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, E. Hoffmann Price, and Henry S. Whitehead. The exact correspondence varied according to the tastes of each, but they all participating in answering letters, circulating stories, lending books, artwork, and other materials, and of course sharing the latest news and leads regarding their mutual field of endeavor. One of the most intriguing sidelights of this mutual correspondence involved a particularly deranged fan, mentioned by Clark Ashton Smith in a letter to August Derleth dated 15 May 1932:

No word from Bates about my various stories. He sent me yesterday, however, a terrific communication from one G. P. Olsen of Sheldon, Iowa, which had been addressed to me in care of S.T. I’ve had letters from madmen before, but this one really took the gilt-edged angel-cake. Twelve single-spaced pages, much of it phrased with a lucidity almost equal to that of Gertrude Stein or Hegel. Among other things, as well as I could make it out, the fellow seemed to be desirous of correcting certain erroneous ideas about demons and vampires which he had discovered in “The Nameless Offspring.” Also, he wanted to point out the errors of Abdul Alhazred! Some of the stuff about vampires was really weird: “You never thought of a Vampire in your life but he appeared like an Emperor or an Archangel.” Then he exhorts me to refrain from putting vampires in a bad light, since, by virtue of a little blood-sucking, they really confer immortality on those they have chosen! Later, apropos of godknowswhat, he told me that “you must realize it will never be stood for if you act in any other way than that befitting a Spanish Don.” The letter is the damdest mixture of paranoia, delusions of grandeur and mystic delirium that ever went through the U.S. mails. The fellow writes of Ammon-Ra and Ahriman—a regular hash of Oriental mysticism—in the language of an illiterate Swede. He ends with something to the effect that his letter is the most momentous intellectual promulgation of the age. I’m not in the habit of ignoring letters; but there’s nothing else to be done in this case. (SLCAS 177)

“The Nameless Offspring” was published in the June 1932 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror (which often hit stands the month prior to the cover date), which was edited by Harry Bates. The mention of Alhazred refers to Smith’s “The Return of the Sorcerer” (ST Sep 1931, the premiere issue) so Olsen (or Olson, as Robert E. Howard wrote his name), must have been reading Strange Tales from the the start. The mention of vampires is odd, as neither of Smith’s stories features an actual vampire—”The Return of the Sorcerer” involves another form of undeath, and “The Nameless Offspring” a ghoul—but this appears to have been a characteristic obsession of Olsen, as detailed by Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde smith in May 1932:

I’ve gotten some more letters from that fool Olson, in Iowa. I could endure his lunacy, but his illiteracy gets on my nerves. This time he’s frothing at the mouth on account of my “Horror from the Mound”. He lashed himself into a perfect frenzy because I said a vampire was really dead. He says that there is no death in the first place, and that Christ was a vampire. Also that a vampire is in “reallity” an idealist, with an earth-gravity of 50 per cent. Whatever the hell that means. He says that I ought to be ashamed “tweesting” the facts around and “making the allmighty God look like the dirtiest devil from Hell.” He also says that he is going to “proove” the Medical Society is a pack of fools shortly. He alleges to “proove” his “prooves” by Einstein, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and other great scientists and philosophers. He seems to have the mysteries of life at his finger tips. Well, what the Hell. (CL 2.342-343)

popularfictionpublishingcompany-weird_tales_193205“The Horror from the Mound” appeared in the May 1932 issue of Weird Tales—Howard had, ironically, first submitted it to Strange Tales but it was rejected; he wouldn’t have a story in Strange Tales until June 1932. So it is reasonable that Olsen was a regular reader of WT as well as ST; Howard had previously addressed the subject of vampires in “The Moon of Skulls” (WT Jun-July 1930) and “Hills of the Dead” (WT Aug 1930), and Olsen had apparently previously written to Howard about the latter tale (CL 2.354, AMtF 1.292).

Howard’s story was, as described by Jeffrey Shanks and Mark Finn in “Vaqueros and Vampires in the Pulps: Robert E. Howard and the Dawn of the Undead West”, probably derived from Bram Stoker by way of Universal Pictures and Bela Lugosi. (UIW2 8-9) The vampire de Valdez would be familiar to contemporary readers, a suave nobleman vampire along the lines of Count Dracula; Olsen’s ideas of vampires, by contrast, are very atypical even by the pulp standards of 1932, not in keeping with traditional Eastern European folklore as used by Stoker in Dracula (1897) or Montague Summers’ Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928), or even the more occult notions of the vampire promoted by Helena Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled (1877).

Whatever Olsen’s immediate sources, his fan-letters appear to be a personal combination of occult metaphysics…and physics, as Howard recounts in a later letter to Clyde Smith:

More gems from Olson: “The A-Rama is Einstein A-Space, the B-Rama is brain or Brama, the C-Rama is Solar Plexus or Pain and in it’s cappacity of being organic Pain it is Visshnue the creator and the D-Rama is that thing we know as Drama, which is the four-armed ballance of Shiva the destroyer, being the basical gender in nature and being in effect also sex, since sex and ellementairy nature is the same thing actually, as soon as I explain it —–” “The chief thing Jesus tried to impress was that want is in itself allmight and that by means of training the mind for greater wants and the body to hold greater hungers, if anything hapens to the consciousness, the atoms hold the hunger and do not break in decay, accordingly as the stomack eats up the filler and the blood thins down, the person comes up with high hungers and if he is a fool he is then a vampire.” “Accordingly, no vampire, however vampirally ignorant he may be, can possibly be as vampirical as yourself and all the people of the earth, since not knowing this, you account not at all the strict code that is Mrs. Cornelius VanderBilt or Mrs. Astor or that of any Duke or Duchess of the world — Why do you suppose that a Duke considers that he may withouth regrets pierce with his sword a man that refuses to pay him respect — A man that refuses to stop and utterly postphone the filling of his hungers the instance the Duke appears in the vicinity?” He also sends me a damnable chain letter and tells me I dare not refuse to continue the chain. Like hell I don’t. I might excuse his insanity, but writers of chain-letters are a blight and a stumbling block on the road of progress. (CL 2.350-351)

This rant at least contains a few more recognizable elements—”Brama” (Bhrama), ”Visshnue” (Vishnu) and Shiva are deities in the Hindu religion, and form a divine trinity; the forehead and solar plexus are typically associated with chakras in tantric yoga, and so suggest Olsen was tapping into Indian or Theosophical materials. The reference to Einstein’s “A-Space” is vague, but appears to be an interpretation of Einstein notation with regards to his theory of General Relativity—although I’ve yet to find a source that uses the exact nomenclature, Einstein notation does involve the use of vectors. Howard, in a letter now lost, apparently communicated something of Olsen to Lovecraft, who replied on 7 May:

As for this Olson—I haven’t ever been honoured by his direct attention, but I have seen some of the letters with which he has been pestering poor Whitehead during the last few months. It appears that he is quite a notorious nuisance among ‘scientifiction’ writers, especially those contributing to the Clayton magazines. he is—in the opinion of Bates, Whitehead (who has had some experience as a psychiatrist) and myself—a genuine maniac; though we don’t know whether or not he is under actual restraint. He may be a relatively harmless case living with his family—though none the less wholly emented in certain directions. He has been giving Whitehead long and frantic lectures on “vectors”, and “A, B, and C-space”. It seems there is something especially sinister and menacing about C—space—so that it will bring about the end of the world very shortly unless all living sages get busy and call in the aid of the “Vectors”. Olson also has some startling and unique biological theories. According to him, the blood is not the life but the death. It is our blood which makes us die—and therefore, since food makes blood, the one simple way to become immortal is to discontinue the use of food! Poor devil—I suppose he is an ignorant, weak-brained fellow who saturated himself with odds and ends of popular occult and scientific lore either before or after the crucial thread of sanity snapped. As Whitehead says, there is nothing to do but ignore the letters of a case like that. (AMtF 1.287)

Whitehead had published stories in both Strange Tales and Weird Tales in the months leading up to May 1932, none of which involve vampires per se, although “Cassius” (ST Nov 1931) comes close. What other writers Olsen made a nuisance of himself of is open to speculation; based solely on what we know of his interests and the magazines he read, likely victims include those whose vampire stories earned the front cover, such as Kirk Mashburn (“Placide’s Wife,” WT Nov 1931; “The Vengeance of Ixmal,” WT Mar 1932) and Hugh B. Cave (“The Brotherhood of Blood,” WT May 1932), though any of the Strange Tales or Weird Tales writers would likely be fair game; and apparently August Derleth was on the receiving end of Olsen’s intentions (SLCAS 289). Robert E. Howard replied to Lovecraft in a letter dated 24 May 1932:

Poor Olson — what you say of him clinches my conclusion that he is completely insane. I first heard from him a long time ago when he wrote commenting on my “Hills of the Dead”; favorably, by the way. “The Horror from the Mound” seems to have enraged him. He hasn’t pulled any “C-Space” or “vectors” on me, though he has had considerable to say about “Ramas” A,B,C, etc.. Neither has he given me the secret of immortality, though he has hinted darkly at it. I’ve never answered any of his letters, though the impulse has been strong to reply with a missive that would make his ravings sound like the prosaic theorizings of a professor fossilized in conventions. But it would be a poor thing to make game of the unfortunate soul. (CL 2.354, AMtF 1.292)

Howard also passed along an abbreviated version of Lovecraft’s record of Olsen’s rantings to Clyde Smith. (CL 2.369) More interesting, perhaps, is that Clark Ashton Smith continued to hear from Olsen, as Lovecraft duly passed on to Howard in a letter dated 8 June 1932:

As for the cracked and ubiquitous Olson—Clark Ashton Smith has been hearing from him now. He is fairly frothing at the mouth over what he considers Smith’s disrespectful treatment of vampires—who, he argues, are the saviours of the world because they take away the blood which forms the death of us all! Obviously, the poor fellow’s epistles admit of no reply. All one can do is to let him keep on writing—which doubtless relieves his agitated and disordered emotions. (AMtF 1.307)

Olsen continued to be a point of discussion for Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith; while their complete correspondence has not yet been published (Hippocampus Press is currently working on the volume, to be titled Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, to be edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz), we do have some intriguing fragments of their conversation. In a November 1933 letter to Lovecraft, Smith wrote:

Olsen, as you wisely say, is a totally different matter; megalomania, dementia, mystic delirium and whatnot were all scrambled together in the one interminable screed he wrote me. (SLCAS 236)

Lovecraft apparently came to Olsen’s attention after “The Dreams in the Witch-House” was published in the July 1932 Werid Tales, and received his own letter—much like Smith, Howard’s, and Whitehead’s in content, though apparently too offering the “secret of immortality” which Howard said he had hinted at. Lovecraft forwarded the letter to Smith, who replied on 4 December 1933:

The Olsen letter, which I return, is most illuminating. Someone, I forget whom, has fathered a book on the sort of cosmogony at which O. is apparently driving. Of course, if you accept the idea that the earth’s surface is really the inside of a sphere surrounding the negligible remainder of the cosmos, then the space-conceptions implied in your Witchhouse story are most egregiously fallacious. The letter is really a marvel of lucidity compared to the 10 or twelve page monograph on the nobility of ghouls, vampires et al which I received from Olsen in correction of my “Nameless Offspring” and the errors of Abdul Alhazred. It would seem that the bats in Olsen’s belfry—or the spirochetae in his spinal column—are less gyrationally active than of yore. However, it is plain that he has not relinquished his position of mentor-in-chief to the Weird Tales contributors! His offer to instruct you in person for 25 paltry pazoors is truly magnanimous not to say magnific. (SLCAS 242-243)

The “Hollow Earth” theory has been around in one form or another for centuries, and by the early 20th century was the domain of cranks, occultists, and fiction writers—he might possibly have been thinking of Marshall Gardner’s A Journey to the Earth’s Interior (1913, revised 1920). “Spirochetae” is a reference to syphilis, with Smith implying that Olsen was suffering from advanced stages of the disease, which can cause delusions and hallucinations; obviously, the Californian never knew that Lovecraft’s father had died of neurosyphilis (and it is unknown if Lovecraft himself was aware of the exact nature of his father’s terminal illness). Smith repeated the assertion in a letter to August Derleth dated 13 April 1937:

As for me, I’ll never forget the letters from that paretic Swede, Olsen; one of which letters corrected at great length certain mistaken notions of Abdul Alhazred. But I remember also that you had some experience with Olsen and his patents of infernal and grandiose nobility! (SLCAS 289)

From that point on, Olsen apparently became a familiar enough touchstone to be mentioned in passing in Lovecraft’s letters (LRBO 256), but was rarely mentioned.

Other than these fragments, we know very little about this individual; no Olson or Olsen with those initials is listed on the 1930 or 1940 US census for Sheldon, Iowa. There is currently no evidence of letters from Olsen before 1930 or after 1933, at least in the published correspondence of Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, & co., nor have I yet turned up any regular fan-letters in the letter-columns of Weird Tales or Strange Tales. Probably there’s some truth to Lovecraft’s assessment that Olsen “saturated himself with odds and ends of popular occult and scientific lore”—what with the disparate homebrewed mix of vampirology, Christian apocrypha, Einsteinian physics, Theosophy or Hindu religion, and Hollow Earth Theory—Olsen certainly qualifies as one of the weirdest correspondents in a weird circle.

Works Cited

AMtF               A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press, 2 vols.)

CL                   Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (REH Foundation Press, 3 vols. + Index and Addenda)

LRBO              Letters to Robert Bloch and Others (Hippocampus Press)

SLCAS            Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith (Arkham House)

UIW2               Undead in the West II: They Just Keep Coming (Scarecrow Press)

Ellis33

This is Part Four, the final part of a series featuring photos taken at the home of Doug Ellis and his wife by TGR blogger Barbara Barrett. As you can see, Doug has amassed a huge collection of original pulp art, pulps and other collectibles. Here is Barbara’s introduction to this series in Part One.

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Photos courtesy of Doug Ellis

Part One, Part TwoPart Three

This entry filed under Howard Illustrated.

frond_medium

noun

  1. a large leaf (especially of a palm or fern) usually with many divisions

[origin: 1785; Latin frond-, frons foliage]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

Stay not from me, that veil of dreams that gives
Strange seas and skies and lands and curious fire,
Dragons and crimson moons and white desire,
That through the silvery fabric sifts and sieves
Shadows and shades and all unmeasured things,
And in the sifting lends them shapes and wings
And makes them known in ways past common knowing—
Red lands, black seas, and ivory rivers flowing.
How of the gold we gather in our hands?
It cheers but shall escape us at the last,
And shall mean less, when the brief day is past,
Than that we gathered on the yellow sand—
The phantom gold we found in wizard-land.
Keep not from me, my veil of curious dreams,
Through which I see the giant things which drink
From sensuous castled rivers—on the brink
Black elephants that woo the fronded streams.

[from “Shadow of Dreams”; to read the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 338 and Shadows of Dreams, p. 46]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.

SKULL_FACE

Howard anniversaries, by their very nature, tend to come along thick and fast. Alongside everything else which is worth commemorating this year it shouldn’t be forgotten that 2016 marks the seventieth anniversary of the publication of Skull-Face and Others, arguably the most important collection of Howard’s work ever compiled.

Strange to consider that it is a book which is now as old as the United Nations, similarly superseded in so many ways but whose importance can likewise never be eclipsed.

The discovery of Skull-Face and Others was, at one time, a pivotal development in a Howard fan’s education. And for Howard collectors the acquiring of a copy of the original Arkham House edition remains a rite of passage. Every copy seems to come with a story of some sort attached to it, be it one of astronomical expense or unbelievable thrift. For what it’s worth my own copy came courtesy of a stallholder at a London pulp fair who told me that he had got it from his father who had once been a New York City taxi driver. His father claimed to have salvaged it from a fly-tip of dumped books on some Big Apple waste ground. I have no idea if the tale is true or not – more likely another New York tall story – but it remains indicative of the sort of mystique and urban mythmaking that continues to attach itself to the book.

derlethWhen August Derleth compiled the book – almost under protest it is often said – he can scarcely have dreamed, even in his wildest nightmares, of the vast array of imitations it would ultimately engender. Even when he died in 1971 the quantity of books by Howard that were then available was relatively modest. He passed away without any serious cause to doubt his conviction that, despite acknowledged potential, Howard was essentially a facile entertainer – albeit an adept one – doomed to be eventually forgotten along with the other 99% of the hacks who had once labored at the rock face of the pulps. In his estimation the very process of putting together what he came to term a “memorial volume” was tantamount to erecting a headstone to Howard’s career, one every bit as unequivocal as its equivalent in Greenleaf Cemetery. As has become palpably self-evident over time we now know that the ending of Howard’s life was but the beginning of his reputation. He has been re-evaluated, reappraised, rediscovered and reassessed so many times over the intervening years that it can sometimes seem as if he never died at all. And yet despite the vast publishing edifice we now all have access to the fact remains that Derleth’s jaundiced and grudging compilation remains the foundation stone for it all. This is both its greatest cachet and its single biggest flaw.

Arkham-TheDarkManandOthersIt has long been an amusing pastime amongst Howard fans to compile lists of his best and/or most important stories. One list seldom chimes with another in all but a minority of indisputably seminal tales. For that reason there seems little point or profit in challenging Derleth’s own idiosyncratic selection for Skull-Face and Others. Although I daresay I can’t be the only one over the years to have scratched his head and wonder how stories such as “Pigeons from Hell” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” could be deemed good enough for inclusion in The Dark Man and Others and yet not match the same merit for inclusion in the memorial volume as “Rattle of Bones” and “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Or to dispute why it was considered necessary to include two Solomon Kane stories that are, ostensibly, as similar in nature as “The Hills of the Dead” and “Wings in the Night” when either would have sufficed leaving room for something else. But these are exercises in futility. The book is what it is rather than what it might have been and so must be assessed as such.

As things stand the contents remain perfectly adequate and understandable. The poems and the character sketches by Lovecraft and Price are nice touches which compliment the fiction well. Although, personally, I find it very hard to read the Price appreciation nowadays without thinking of the crabby old misanthrope he was to become; one forever grouching over subsequent generations’ obsession with dead pulp writers whilst perpetually living off of his own recollections of them.

The real problem with the book lies in Derleth’s arbitrary decision to restrict himself solely to Howard’s weird fiction for choice of inclusion. By doing so whatever benefit the book gains in reflecting the span of Howard’s career it loses in the denial of his versatility. One may argue that Arkham House was a weird fiction specialist and as such Derleth was simply catering to his customer base. But Derleth was perfectly well aware that, unlike his beatified Lovecraft, there was a lot more to Howard than a good weird yarn. His own introduction makes the point of acknowledging Howard’s interest and late divergence into western lore. He even postulates the possibility of work of importance eventually arising out of it: (as a regionalist himself Derleth would naturally equate such material as important but it seems odd to dismiss entertainments as unimportant by implication when he has just devoted half his introduction to defending the legitimacy of pulp writing). And yet despite this concession there is almost nothing in the book to reinforce the opinion except for a solitary comedy western included almost as a sop to the idea that there might just be more to Howard than gore and ghosts. By neglecting wholesale Howard’s brilliant excursions into historical fiction, marginalizing his gift for humor and disregarding vast swathes of his output it was Derleth, more than anyone else, who effectively pigeonholed Howard as a mere fantasist for decades afterwards. As a consequence this inflicted incalculable damage upon his reputation simply as a writer first and foremost.

manchess_conanIt might even be argued that the later regrettable pre-eminence of Conan was a direct result of Derleth affording the character undue prominence in the book. Certainly the character had been popular at one time, but that was ten years and more in the past, and surely the purpose of the book was to preserve the best of Howard’s work rather than simply his most successful. If that had been the case then why wasn’t a Costigan or Elkins story included? Derleth himself clearly didn’t rate the Conan stories very much and so one must query why he allocated space to no less than five Conan adventures, particularly when only one of his choices warranted inclusion on literary merit alone.

There is nothing inherently wrong or disreputable about being remembered solely as a fantasy writer. Most authors would give their right arms to be remembered for anything at all, period. But Howard had more than just the one string to his bow and Derleth’s short sightedness denied him the right to be judged on his versatility.

And yet whatever its faults and failings the fact is that Skull-Face and Others remains to this day the quintessential Howard collection. I have it in its Arkham, Spearman and Panther editions, and if my house was burning down it is the Howard volume I would elect to rescue over all others. Although I can’t claim I wouldn’t be fussy about which version I chose to save. That really would be a fantasy story.

umber

noun

1. a brown earth that is darker in color than ocher and sienna because of its content of manganese and iron oxides and is highly valued as a permanent pigment either in the raw or burnt state

[origin: ca. 1568; probably from obsolete English, shade, color, from Middle English ombre, umbre shade, shadow, from Anglo-French, from Latin umbra]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

Red swirls the dust
O’er the Plains of Gilban,
Stirred by the breezes that eddy the air.
Carpeted, mingled, crimsoned with sword rust;
Ages’ old relics of fierce battles there.
West turns to umber,
Ghastly the white east;
O’er the red desert sands
Sinks the sun dim.
Like an old high priest
Over the vague lands,
Whisper the winds from the horizon’s rim.

[from “The Plains of Gilban”; this is the complete poem as it appears in The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 280 and A Rhyme of Salem Town, p. 140]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.