Archive for April, 2010

The upcoming issue of TGR, which will make its debut at this year’s Howard Days, will include a special treat for Howard fans. The rare Howard story for issue #14 is “The Curly Wolf of Sawtooth.” To date, this hilarious western featuring Bearfield Elston has only appeared once, in the September 1936 issue of Star Western.  At some point before his death, Howard rewrote a Breckinridge Elkins story titled “A Elkins Never Surrenders” into this Elston story. The Elkins version eventually appeared in 1968, 1979 and 1983. Richard Pace is doing the artwork for “The Curly Wolf of Sawtooth,” and one of his preliminary sketches of Elston appears at the left.

A complete list of contents, as well as pre-ordering information will be available soon.  Also, the print run for this upcoming issue will only be 210 copies, and with this rare story in the issue, I suspect it will sell like Howardian hotcakes.

Additional information on TGR #14 can be found on the Coming Soon page.

This entry filed under Howard Days, Howard's Fiction, News.

I am a very happy man today, having just received in the mail my very own copy of the 1937 Herbert Jenkins edition of A Gent from Bear Creek.  Considering there are only a dozen other known copies in the world, I am also a very lucky man.

Just like every Howard collector, I’ve always wanted to own a copy of the Jenkins Gent. I knew that I would have to get lucky if I ever wanted to find one, because my pockets were not deep enough to buy one at full price. When the Darrell C. Richardson auction was announced a few weeks ago, I did raise a good chunk of money to go after the Phantagraphs and some desired pulps, but the copy of Gent that was in the lot was never on my radar.

Now, I suppose every hardcore collector is aware that a few years ago an American bookseller listed a Jenkins edition of Gent for $15, obviously having no idea as to its real value. This copy was immediately snatched up by a Canadian bookdealer and ended up on eBay, selling for $8,500 a few weeks later. I suspect that a lot of people had the same idea I had – that history could repeat itself, so I added Gent to my list of automated notifications from ABE and patiently waited.

Last Tuesday (April 20), a little before 6:00 pm French time, I received the email. I remember seeing A Gent from Bear Creek in the subject field, which surprised me because I usually don’t get notifications for the book, and then I saw the year – 1937. I don’t remember registering anything as to the condition except that it lacked the dustjacket, and the price: £20 ($30 American). It took me a few seconds to digest all this, and then I literally went dizzy, immediately clicked on the item, logged in, and bought it. The whole transaction took 30 seconds, tops. I didn’t know how much I had paid for postage, and was not really sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

I tried to cool down, re-read everything, took a deep breath and decided to give the bookseller a call. I told him I was simply inquiring if my order had gone through, because I had been looking for that book “for years.” I offered no further details. The bookseller said it usually took a couple hours before they get the notification, but he did some checking and thus the book was pulled off the ABE list within the hour. I didn’t ask him to confirm it was indeed a 1937 Herbert Jenkins edition, as I didn’t want to arouse suspicion. The conversation ended when he told me the book would go out the next day.

For the next 48 hours, the butterflies in my stomach were killed by the pins and needles I had in there. On Thursday, I received notification that the book had shipped and I became hopeful, but still remained wary. It arrived today in a plain padded envelope. Fortunately it made the trip safely and didn’t suffer any damage in transit.

The book is in amazing shape; by far the best copy I have seen. No fading whatsoever – some very light foxing, some minor rubbing and shelfwear, and that’s it. A copy that was not in such great shape, the Richardson copy, fetched about $12,000 a few weeks ago in a little-publicized auction. With that in mind, one can only wonder as to the value of the copy now in my possession.

Now, I know that A Gent from Bear Creek is the Holy Grail for most heavy-duty Howard collectors, so I *am* on Cloud Nine, no doubt about it. But my state of mind is nowhere near what I felt when I came into possession of an original of the iconic 1934 Fedora/Al Capone photograph. Receiving that rare gift still gives me shivers. It is a one of a kind item, one that has a real connection to Bob Howard. This copy of Gent is only a book – well, a really, really rare book.

You might ask if I am planning to sell my copy. Well, no, I have no intention of parting with it – unless you have some original Howard typescripts to trade. That I would consider.

Note: Jeff Shanks over at The Cimmerian has posted his thoughts on this amazing discovery.

 

One of the Conan stories Howard left unfinished was “Wolves Beyond the Border,” set in the Pictish Wilderness of “Beyond the Black River” and “The Black Stranger.” It was also somewhat of a new direction for the famous Cimmerian.

In “Wolves,” the strong influence of author Robert W. Chambers is present. Howard had three of Chambers’ books, which take place during the American Revolution, on his bookshelf and he used many of the names from those books, albeit slightly altered in “Wolves.”  The Chambers influence is also seen to a lesser degree in “Beyond the Black River.”

As with the other Conan fragments, L. Sprague de Camp could not resist putting his heavy hand on “Wolves,” completing and altering it in the process to “fit” his vision of what Conan’s life should have been.  Both of Howard’s drafts did not see print together until 2005 when they were published in Del Rey’s The Conquering Sword of Conan.  In fact, all of stories discussed in this series are in the third book of Conan stories. In this volume, Editor Patrice Louinet writing in “Hyborian Genesis Part III,” talks of the birth of “Wolves Beyond the Border:”

“Wolves” is one of the most intriguing Conan fragments precisely because it is not, strictly speaking, a Conan story. It was not the first time Howard had attempted something different with Conan and, as we are about to see, not the first time he experimented with another character because he was starting to feel “out of contact” with one of his creations.

Shortly before he wrote his novel The Hour of the Dragon, Howard had attempted another story in which Conan is only an off-stage presence for a significant part of the tale. In that case, however, Conan’s absence was confined to the first chapters of a story which was envisioned as a novel; as the synopsis for the complete story attests, the Cimmerian was intended as a prominent character, if not actually the protagonist of the story. The situation can be seen as a parallel to “A Witch Shall Be Born,” in which the Cimmerian acts mostly off-stage. But in the case of “Wolves Beyond the Border,” the situation is markedly different, most notably due to the fact that this is a first person narrative, in which Conan makes no appearance, though he is mentioned several times in the course of the story.

A very similar situation had arisen a few years earlier in Howard’s career, and makes for an interesting comparison. In 1926, Howard created Kull the Atlantean, his first epic fantasy character, about whom the Texan wrote or began a dozen tales. In 1928, however, Howard apparently started to lose interest in his character. He then began – but never completed – a very intriguing fragment in which the major character was not Kull. [He] was relegated to a minor role, but his friend Brule, the Pictish warrior, whose characteristics were markedly different in that in his previous appearances. Kull was apparently becoming merely a supporting character in his own series, in quite the same fashion Conan seems to be in “Wolves Beyond the Border.” Howard never completed the fragment, but from that moment on the character of Kull underwent a drastic evolution. It is quite striking to see that in those two fragments, the off-stage characters are barbarians who have become or are becoming kings of civilized countries.  And in both fragments, the sentiments of the new protagonists when it comes to politics are the same. Compare the following:

“The people of Conajohara scattered throughout the Westermarck, in Schohira, Conawaga, or Oriskawny, but many of them went southward and settled near fort Thandara… There they were later joined by other settlers for whom the older provinces were too thickly inhabited, and presently there grew up the district known as the Free Province of Thandara, because it was not like the other provinces, royal grants to great lords east of the marches and settled by them, but cut out of the wilderness by the pioneers themselves without aid of the Aquilonian nobility. We paid no taxes to any baron. Our governor was not appointed by any lord, but we elected him ourselves, from our own people, and he was responsible only to the king. We manned and built our forts ourselves in war as in peace. And Mitra knows war was a constant state of affairs, for there was never peace between us and our neighbors, the wild Panther, Alligator and Otter tribes of Picts. (from “Wolves Beyond the Border”)

“We of The Islands are all one blood, but of many tribes, and each tribe has customs and traditions peculiar to itself alone. We all acknowledge Nial of Tatheli as over-king but his rules is loose. He does not interfere with our affairs among ourselves, nor does he levy tribute or taxes…[H]e takes no toll of my tribe, the Borni, nor of any other tribe, neither does he interfere when two tribes go to war – unless some tribe encroaches on the three who pay tribute… And when the Lemurians or the Celts or any foreign nation or band of reavers come against us, he sends forth for all tribes to put aside their quarrels and fight side by side. Which is a good thing. He might be a supreme tyrant if he liked, for his own tribe is very strong, and with the aid of Valusia he might do as he liked—but he knows that though he might, with his tribes and their allies, crush all the other tribes, there would never be peace again… “ (from the untitled Kull fragment)

Here are more than passing resemblances. In both instances, the peculiar political turmoil can also be read as a mirror of a similar turmoil taking place in Howard’s psyche, connected to the social situation of his regular protagonists: Kull the king of Valusia and Conan the soon-to-be king of Aquilonia. In both instances, the Picts – only mentioned once so far in the Conan series (in “The Phoenix on the Sword”) – appear as the necessary catalysts for change: Brule is a Pict, and the threat they pose to the Aquilonian settlement triggers the events of “Wolves Beyond the Border.”  The Picts – the savages forever present in Howard’s universe – force the Howardian characters to reveal their true nature.

As was the case with the Kull fragment then, Howard did not complete “Wolves Beyond the Border.” His first draft diminished into part-story, part-synopsis, while the second was similarly abandoned. The tale was probably at the same time too derivative of Chambers and too much a necessary exercise before Howard could fully tackle this new phase of his character’s evolution.

The tale is told by a border ranger named Gault Hagar’s son, who is asleep in the woods at the beginning of the story. The ranger is awakened by the sound of a drum and witnesses a secret Pictish ceremony conducted by Tenayoga, a Ligurean shaman in the presence of Lord Valerian, an Aquilonian nobleman. During the sorcerous ceremony, a man and a giant snake exchange souls before being slain by the shaman.

Gault is discovered by the Picts after an unsuccessful attempt to kill the shaman and flees to Fort Kwanyara, then to the town of Schondara where he meets an old friend in a tap room and is updated on Conan’s conquest of Aquilonia. He sees Valerian in the town and points him out as an ally of the Picts. The nobleman is imprisoned but escapes with the help of his Pictish mistress.

That night, Gault is attacked by and slays a giant ape. Gault, Hakon and a dozen others follow Valerian to a cabin where they observe him with the old shaman and a band of Gunderman guards. The leaders of four Pictish tribes plan to meet together and consult a wizard in the swamp prior to their attack on the settlers. Gault, Hakon and their rangers attack the cabin setting it on fire. The two are the only survivors of the battle and track those who escaped the carnage to the swamp meeting and where they are captured.

The tribes agree to attack Schondara using magic supplied by the wizard and depart, leaving Gault and Hakon bound to stakes. The two break free of their bindings and Gault slays the wizard. The pair then follows the war party and sabotages the Pictish assault, saving Schondara.

As Patrice notes above, Howard and Conan are indeed evolving. In October 1934, Howard told girlfriend Novalyne Price that he was “getting a little tired of Conan … This country needs to be written about. There are all kinds of stories around here.” Clearly he was longing to write a great American novel set in his native southwest.

Since Howard wrote his last Conan story in July 1935, his discontent with Conan does give prudence to those who claim he was losing interest in writing weird tales. Clearly, there is a good argument for this, but Howard had other reasons for turning his back on Conan during the final 11 months of his life. No doubt a combination of the strong pull of his western roots and Farnsworth Wright’s unwillingness to pay him what he was owed nudged away from writing weird tales.  I personally believe the interest was still there, but faced with the reality of his terminally ill mother and the desperate need for cash, Howard understandably turned toward markets that paid and paid on time.

As for returning to writing weird tales, Howard may have given us the answer. After his death, among his papers and manuscripts was a draft/synopsis of an untitled weird yarn. Howard mentions this unfinished effort in a letter to August Derleth, dated May 9, 1936, just one month before his passing:

I haven’t written a weird story for nearly a year, though I’ve been contemplating one dealing with Coronado’s expedition on the Staked Plains in 1541. A good theme if I can develop it.

The story mixes a southwestern theme with ancient Egypt and sorcery. Glenn Lord later gave it the title of “Nekht Semerkeht” (the name of the yarn’s evil sorcerer) to the story and Andrew Offutt completed it in 1977 for Swords of Darkness #1.  The original Howard version appears in The Black Stranger and Other American Tales.

Who can say what the rest of Howard’s unlived life would have offered the world.  More Conan stories? More weird tales?  No one knows for sure. But clearly Howard was chomping at the bit to spin many, many more yarns of his beloved wild, wild west.

Part I / Part II / Part III

With Howard Days just 49 days away, it is shaping up to be an exciting two day event for Howard fans. The full schedule is up over at the REHupa website, and a couple of familiar faces have been added.

Paul Sammon, author of Conan the Phenomenon, is going to be one of the panelists.  Paul is a pretty interesting guy to talk with, having kicked around Hollywood and filmmaking for over 30 years.  In addition to his Conan book, Paul wrote what many people consider to be the definitive volume on Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.

Tom Foster is another interesting guy who will attend Howard days and participate on at least one panel. Over his long career, Tom has worn many hats: Howard artist, cartoonist, art director, portrait painter, sculptor, set designer and publisher.  He has worked in all areas of media, from the record industry to television and moviemaking.   Tom is also one of the founding members (along with Dennis McHaney) of the legendary “Blufftown Barbarians.” I’ve been a fan of his work since 1974 when I bought my very first Howard hardcover, The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan, which was illustrated by Tom.

This year’s theme is “The Illustrators of Robert E. Howard,” with Jim and Ruth Keegan as Guests of Honor. 

So don’t procrastinate, make your reservations now and come visit Howard’s home, meet the Keegans and other Howard fans while you support Project Pride, the keeper of the Howard flame in Cross Plains.

Thanks for the plug, Damon. And speaking of Brownwood, here’s a little information about Brownwood High School, some of which didn’t make it into the book.

During the 1922-23 school year, Robert E. Howard and his mother rented a room or two in the home of Mrs. Alice Day at 316 Wilson Street, in Brownwood, Texas. The Howards had gone there so that Robert could attend the local high school for the 11th grade, which at that time was the senior year. The Cross Plains school only went through the 10th grade and students interested in going on to college needed to complete the senior year elsewhere. Many students came to Brownwood from outlying communities for this reason. Some enrolled at the Howard Payne Academy to complete high school, others, like Robert Howard, went to Brownwood High.

925 Austin Avenue does not exist as an address today, but in 1922 those were the numbers for Brownwood High. From Howard’s Wilson Street address, it was a short walk to school: One block to Austin and six blocks to Avenue B; the school was on the corner. On his way down Austin, Howard would have passed the Brownwood Ice & Fuel Company and gone through the “Santa Fe Subway” underpass. As a student at BHS, Howard met Truett Vinson, also a senior, who later introduced him to Tevis Clyde Smith, a mere sophomore. Novalyne Price was also a student at BHS that year, though it doesn’t appear that she and Howard had any contact.

Howard and Vinson were members of the Heels Club, which L. Sprague de Camp said was “for outstanding male students.” Years after Howard’s death, one of his classmates from BHS did remember him as “bright, a good student.”  However, other sources say that the Heels Club designation may have been “a way the kids had of marking all the schoolmates who got stepped on a lot.” The fact that so many members signed the Heels Club’s heel in the school’s yearbook makes this supposition seem less than likely: Why sign the emblem that your tormentors had assigned to you? Robert Howard’s signature is not present.

Howard saw the first of his writings in print while attending BHS. Before the Christmas break, he submitted “West Is West” and “ ‘Golden Hope’ Christmas” to the school’s student newspaper, The Tattler. Both were well received and earned the writer a mention in another, larger paper, the Brownwood Bulletin:

 

Three more Howard-penned stories appeared in The Tattler before his May graduation: “Unhand Me, Villain!” “Aha! Or the Mystery of the Queen’s Necklace,” and “The Sheik.” (Another short yarn, “The Ideal Girl,” appeared two years after his graduation when Tevis Clyde Smith was the editor of the paper.) Howard’s first two tales were awarded cash prizes. A poem he submitted to the Baylor College for Women’s high school poetry contest earned an honorable mention. Howard’s essay “What the Nation Owes the South” was awarded a medal at his graduation and printed in the Brownwood Bulletin shortly after commencement. Upon graduating, Howard and his mother returned to Cross Plains.

In 2002 the Santa Fe Subway was replaced by an overpass. That same overpass forced a reassignment of addresses on Austin Avenue. Most of the old school building’s front yard was taken over by the new overpass, as was its address: 925 Austin Avenue is now located under tons of asphalt, but the old building survives, with a new address: 901 Avenue B. And, while the words “High School” are still clearly etched in the stonework of the building, those words can only be seen by entering through the side entrance of the Family Services Building.

Once full of enthusiastic students, teachers and administrators, today the building houses the offices of the local Big Brother chapter and other organizations. Gone are the lockers and desks, but if visitors go up to the second floor, they can almost hear the echoes of the old school bell.

With “The Black Stranger,” Howard and Conan return to the forests, rivers and forts of the Pictish Wilderness, which serves as a Hyborian version of the American frontier.

The story might have been intended as a  sequel to “Beyond the Black River.”  However, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejected the story; perhaps a bit peeved at Howard for re-visiting the Pictish Wilderness instead of returning to the tried and true haunts of Conan. After the rejection, Howard re-wrote “The Black Stranger” into a straight pirate adventure, “Swords of the Red Brotherhood,” with Terence Vulmea, a newly created character. Interestingly, Karl Edward Wagner put forth the argument that the Vulmea version came first and the Conan version later. After Howard’s death, literary agent, Otis Adelbert Kline sold “Red Brotherhood” to Golden Fleece magazine, which folded before it could be published. The Vulmea version finally saw print in the mid 1970s.

It was not until 1987 when Wagner included the original Howard version of “The Black Stranger” in Echoes of Valor #1 did the world finally get  to read this most elusive of Conan stories.  Previously, only the heavily rewritten  L. Sprague de Camp version was available, published as “The Treasure of Tranicos.”

Despite the story’s long and checkered past, it is overall a good story with plenty of action and interesting characters.  Nonetheless, “The Black Stranger” does have its critics and fans.  

The late Steve Tompkins was particularly fond of it and wrote about it several times. Here is an excerpt from his  Introduction to The Black Stranger and Other American Tales:

… “The Black Stranger,” [is] the last and longest of the Pictish Wilderness stories in the Conan series…  We hold the American-ness of “The Black Stranger”  to be self evident; the western edge of Pictland scarcely camouflages the eastern shore of North America. As we venture inland from Count Valenso’s beachhead, we meet D. H. Lawrence’s demons at their most grinning, unappeased and aboriginal in a grandfather of all old-growth forests that weighed and preyed on the minds of European colonists in those first footholds of Plymouth, Jamestown, and St. Augustine.

The critic Alfred Kazin once described the Puritan enterprise as American’s Middle Ages, and indeed, the Puritans were the only Americans ever to dwell in a sword-and-sorcery universe.  Later Frontiersmen called Indians savages, primitives, or even vermin, but only Puritans could employ an apocalyptic terminology – devils, demons, fiends – and believe every word. “The Black Stranger “ (and its more acclaimed and anthologized predecessor “Beyond the Black River”) are key texts in modern American fantasy because they create the literally be-wildered colonists’ mindset described by Richard Slotkin in Regeneration Through Violence: “the eternal presence of native people of the woods, dark of skin and seemingly dark of mind, mysterious, bloody cruel, ‘devil-worshipping:’ to these must be added the tearing up of home roots for wide wandering outward in space, and apparently, backward in time.”

For Belesa, the heroine of “The Black Stranger,” “the world of cities and courts and gaiety [seem] not only thousands of miles but ages away” and she is certain that the forests are “the logical hiding place for any evil thing, man or devil.” The story’s “black man” is on loan from classic American literature: “Art though like the black man that haunts the forest round us?” Hester Prynne asks Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Howard’s story is full of hints that he had recently encountered Hawthorne’s novel, whose crowd scenes are populated by “painted barbarians” and “rough-looking desperados from the Spanish Main.” In many ways “The Black Stranger” is the Scarlet Letter after a sex change, a blood transfusion and, some cutlass lessons. Howard’s fey girl child is all but cloned from Hawthorne’s: Tina appears “with the light patter of small bare feet across the sand,” while Pearl plays after “making her small white feet, pattering along the moist margin of the sea.” Howard’s “wild men of the sea” recall Hawthorne’s “swarthy-cheeked wild men of the ocean,” any of whom “might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety” – exactly the agenda of Howard’s Zarono, with his elegant bows and a “tread as stately as if he trod the polished crystal floor of the Kordova royal court.”

Conan, as Lawrence said of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, “seems to have been born under a hemlock tree out of a pine-cone.” The early colonists triangulated themselves against both Europeans and Indians and became Americans by taking to the woods and taking them away from their previous owners. Mastery of woodcraft has served as shorthand for Americanization from the Leatherstocking Tales through movies like Deliverance, Southern Comfort, First Blood, Red Dawn, and as an example of how not to survive, The Blair Witch Project. Conan, who is at home even on the hunting grounds of his age-old enemies, the Picts, is self-authenticating and his cultural credentials as a Cimmerian, a white barbarian, are a way around what for so long was perceived as the problem of renegades and runaways  who wanted to join Indians rather than beat them.

The story begins with Conan fighting a party of Picts in a pitched battle to the death.  With the Picts in hot pursuit, he climbs up a rocky crag, which the Picts seem to fear. They leave and a perplexed Conan enters a cave on the crag, finding a lost pirate treasure and nearly being killed by a mist-like demon. He barely manages to escape with his life, but without the treasure in hand.

Meanwhile, a Count named Valenso Korzetta who has fled from his palace in Zingara to live in a wooden fort on the frontier, soon finds he is beset by two rival buccaneers, Strombanni and Black Zarano, who have followed him to the shoreline of the Pictish Wilderness. They believe the Count is there to find the Treasure of Tranicos, a lost pirate treasure.  However, far from being on a treasure hunt, the Count has fled to the wilderness to escape a vengeful demon he had double-crossed. Included among his entourage are his niece, the Lady Belesa, and her handmaiden, Tina, along with soldiers and retainers.

Later in the story, Conan appears at a meeting among the Count, Strombanni and Black Zarano and informs them he knows the location of the treasure they seek. The group comes to a rogues agreement and agree to work together to obtain the Treasure of Tranicos.  But Conan is no fool and knows his cohorts will kill him as soon as the treasure is secured.

Conan is one step of their skullduggery and plans to trap them in the cave with the demon.  However, the Picts return and attack the group at the crag, leading to another hastily declared truce to fight the common enemy. In the final battle, the Picts are defeated, but the Count, Strombanni and Black Zarano all lose their lives. At the end of the story, Conan finds himself being drawn back to the sea and a new piratical career.

Again, the western-like elements of Conan’s Hyborian world and the frontier environs of Howard’s America meld together in a whirlwind of bloodshed, deceit and the supernatural.

Part I / Part II /Part IV

Humble TGR blogger Rob Roehm has a new book out just in time for Howard Days:  

The Central Texas town of Brownwood has changed a lot since Robert E. Howard’s time, but traces of the 1920s and ’30s can still be found, if you know where to look. The Brownwood Connection not only provides directions to all of the important locations, it also describes Howard’s relationship with the Texas town, from his high school days to his college experiences and beyond. Part biography, part travelogue, this volume explores the remnants of Howard’s home-away-from-home with photos — both modern and period — as well as pictures and scans of pertinent documents: college catalogues, yearbooks, report cards, maps and more. Every detail of Howard’s life in Brownwood is explored, from his trips to Stone’s Ranch to his relationships with his Brownwood friends. Also included are letters written to Howard from his mother, a section on Novalyne Price, items from the Cross Plains Review, and more.   And if that wasn’t enough, The Brownwood Connection also contains the most in-depth look at Howard’s experiences with the railroad ever published. Every known train ride is analyzed, including his trip on the long defunct Brownwood North & South line. This section also includes photos and scans of schedules, depots, and other pertinent data.  

Complete information on the book, plus ordering info can be found at the REH Foundation website. Don’t delay order your copy now or you’ll miss the train, and be sure to have your ticket ready when the conductor comes through the passenger car.

PulpFest 2010 will take place July 30 – August 1, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio. Continuing the proud tradition of a summer pulp convention, now in its 39th year, PulpFest is a new and improved version of the venerable convention for fans and collectors of vintage popular fiction and related material.

Following the resounding success of the inaugural PulpFest, the 2010 convention will be bigger and better. Sellers of pulp magazines, digests, vintage paperbacks, and other paper collectibles will find a larger dealers’ room, while those members of the evening presentations will be able to enjoy an expanded programming area.

This year’s guest of honor will be the award-winning author, editor, screenwriter, poet, and biographer, William F. Nolan. He is a leading authority on pulp writers Max Brand and Dashiell Hammett, as well as an authority on Black Mask Magazine. This year’s convention will be saluting both the 90th anniversary of Black Mask and the 90th anniversary of Max Brand’s (one of the many pseudonyms of Frederick Faust) first appearance in Western Story Magazine.

The prolific western author Robert Randisi will also be appearing at the convention.

Mike Chomko, bookseller and friend of TGR is one of the organizers of this terrific event for pulp fans of all ages.

For further details on a variety of topics including how to register and the Munsey Award, visit the convention’s website.

So if you can make it, odds are you’ll run into a motley crew of Howard fans like those pictured below.

This entry filed under Howard Fandom, News, Weird Tales.

The Conan story “Red Nails” was fermenting in Howard’s mind for several months before he sat down at his Underwood and wrote it in July 1935. It would be the last Conan story he would write and also his grimmest and bloodiest one. Weird Tales owed him in excess of $800.00 at that time and despite his desperate pleas to Farnsworth Wright for payment, the check was not in the mail. This lack of payment undoubtedly forced Howard to turn to other markets that were paying, notably western and adventure pulps.

The primary theme that runs through “Red Nails” is the decay of civilization, or rather “rotting civilization,” as Howard referred to it once to his girlfriend Novalyne Price.  While Howard had always espoused his theory that civilization was on the decline, he seemed to become a more fervent advocate of the idea as he got older.

To make his point, Howard gave Novalyne The Complete Works of Pierre Louÿs for Christmas on December 22, 1934. Louÿs was a well known author of erotica, with Lesbianism as one of the main themes of his explicit writings. Strong stuff indeed for a small town schoolteacher, which is exactly why Howard gave it to her. Novalyne wrote of  her reaction to Howard’s  “gift” in One Who Walked Alone:

“It was a little too strong for my blood,” I said defensively.  “I didn’t read much of it.”

“Read it… You lead a sheltered life. You don’t know what’s going on in the world.”

That irritated me. “I don’t care to know things like that,” I said hotly. “It seems to me knowing them doesn’t make the world a better place; it only makes you a silent partner.”

“You’re a silent partner whether you like it or not.” He was getting warmed up now.  “You see, girl, when a civilization begins to decay and die, the only thing men or women think about is the gratification of their body’s desires. They become preoccupied with sex. It colors their thinking, their laws, their religion – every aspect of their lives.”

[…]

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you girl. Men quit reading fiction because they only want true stories of men’s sexual exploits… a few years ago, I had a hard time selling yarns… about sex.  Now, I’m going to have to work to catch up with the market… Damn it to hell, girl, sex will be in everything you see and hear. It ‘s the way it was when Rome fell.”

[…]

“Girl I’m working on a yarn like that now – a new Conan yarn. Listen to me. When you have a dying civilization, the normal, accepted life style ain’t strong enough to satisfy the damned insatiable appetites of the courtesans, and finally, of all the people.  They turn to Lesbianism and things like that to satisfy their desires… I am going to call it ‘The Red Flame of Passion.’”

A short while after this conversation, Novalyne threw the book deep  into the crawlspace under  her house.

As the story jelled over the coming months, the title evolved into “Red Nails,” but it still needed something. Shortly after discovering Novalyne was stepping out with his friend Truett Vinson, Howard took off on a pre-planned road trip with him. No doubt it could have been an awkward situation, but Howard seems to have dealt with it in his own stoic way. Heading west, they made their way into New Mexico and Lincoln County, site of the “Bloody Lincoln County War.” The visit had a profound impact on Howard and gave him the material and motivation he needed to round out the Conan story he was working on, as he recounts to H. P. Lovecraft in a July 1935 letter:

Lincoln is a haunted town – yet it is not merely the fact of knowing so many men died there that makes it haunted, to me.  I have visited many spots where death was death whole-sale… But none of these places ever affected me as Lincoln did. My conception of them was not tinged with a definite horror as in Lincoln. I think I know why (Walter Noble) Burns, in his splendid book (The Saga of Billy the Kid) that narrates the feud, missed one dominant element on the inhabitants.  I think geography is the reason for the unusually savage and bloodthirsty manner in which the feud was fought out, a savagery that has impressed everyone who has ever made an intelligent study of the feud and the psychology behind it. The valley in which Lincoln lies is isolated from the rest of the world.  Vast expanses of desert and mountains separate it from the rest of humanity – deserts too barren to support human life. The people of Lincoln lost touch with the world. Isolated as they were, their own affairs, their relationships with one another, took on an importance and significance out of proportion to their actual meaning. Thrown together too much, jealousies and resentments rankled and grew, feeding upon themselves, until they reached monstrous proportions and culminated in those bloody atrocities which startled even the tough West of that day. Visualize that narrow valley, hidden away among the barren hills, isolated from the world, where the inhabitants inescapably dwelt side by side, hated and being hated, and at last killing and being killed. In such restricted, isolated spots, human passions smolder and burn, feeding on the impulses which gave them birth, until they reached a point that can hardly be conceived by dwellers in more fortunate spots.  It was a horror I frankly confess that I visualized the reign of terror that stalked that blood-drenched valley; day and night was a tense waiting, waiting until the thunder of the sudden guns broke the tension for a moment and men died like flies – and then silence followed, and the tension shut down again. No man who valued his life dared speak; when a shot rang out at night and a human being cried out in agony, no one dared open the door and see who had fallen. I visualized people caught together like rats, fighting in terror and agony and bloodshed; going about their work by day with a shut mouth and an averted eye, momentarily expecting a bullet in the back; and at night lying shuddering behind locked doors, trembling in expectation of the stealthy footstep, the hand on the bolt, the sudden blast of lead through the windows. Feuds in Texas were generally fought out in the open, over wide expanses of country. But the nature of the Bonito Valley determined the nature of the feud – narrow, concentrated, horrible. I have heard of people going mad in isolated places; I believe the Lincoln County War was tinged with madness.

Thus did New Mexico’s Lincoln County become the city of Xuchotl in “Red Nails,” and with the final piece of the puzzle in place, Howard wrote his yarn. Taking a cue from Louÿs’ writings, he also managed to work in some veiled Lesbianism and sado-masochism themes, no doubt hoping to get a shot at being the Weird Tales cover story – it worked and Margaret Brundage painted it.  However, Howard did not live to see it; the issue with the first installment of “Red Nails” was published shortly after his death.

The story opens with Valeria fleeing after slaying an amorous Stygian officer with Conan pursuing her with his own amorous agenda. They soon meet, but are almost immediately drawn into a battle with a dragon that has killed their horses. They retreat to a crag where Conan thrusts a makeshift poison tipped spear into the jaws of the monster, but the poison only blinds and enrages the dragon, which pursues them by their scent. After catching up with them, Conan faces the beast and lures it to its death.

Now on foot, Conan and Valeria come upon a walled city called Xuchotl where they encounter a man named Techotl, and they soon learn the bizarre history of the lost city. In earlier times, Tolkemec, a slave betrayed his masters and let in the newly arrived Tlazitlans, who invaded the city and put to death the original builders. The victors were led by two brothers, Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, who afterward ruled peacefully over the city until a feud developed when Tecuhltli stole the bride of his brother Xotalanc. The slave Tolkemec betrayed both sides for his own purposes and was exiled to the catacombs.

Howard makes the point that for the two warring factions, the self-contained city of Xuchotil is the whole world, a world they have turned into a perpetual battleground. The whole mood of the story is one “tinged with madness,” with the only sane inhabitants of the city being the reluctant visitors, Conan and Valeria:

Techotl pointed to a black column of ebony which stood behind the dais. Hundreds of red dots scarred its polished surface — the bright scarlet heads of heavy copper nails driven into the black wood. “Five red nails for five Xotalanca lives!” exulted Techotl, and the horrible exultation in the faces of the listeners made them inhuman…

Soon Conan and Valeria find themselves siding with the Tecuhltli clan in a bitter, ages old feud against the Xotalancas faction.  Luckily, they are on the winning side and survive the treacherous machinations of the leader of the Tecuhltli tribe, Olmec and his mate Tascela. The story culminates in a climactic moment when Conan kills a dangerous and deranged Tolkemec, who had been living in the catacombs of Xuchotil for ages, returning to deal out death with a wand that fires a laser-like flame.

The story ends with Conan and Valeria leaving the city as the sole survivors of the last chapter of the bloody and futile feud within the walls of Xuchotl that Howard paralleled so magnificently with the Lincoln County War.

Part IPart III /Part IV

Robert E. Howard was born and raised in Texas during the early 1900s, a time not too far removed from the days of the Old Frontier.  While growing up, Howard talked to many old timers who still recalled the days when Indians were a threat to the frontiersmen and danger lurked at every turn of the road.  Howard’s bookshelf was also well stocked with books on the West and the colorful characters that populated it.  So it’s not surprising that he wrote so convincingly of it, particularly during the later years of his short writing career.  Even his epic hero, Conan of Cimmerian found himself in some pseudo-Western settings.

“Beyond the Black River” is universally recognized as one of the best Conan stories Howard wrote.  This tale was a departure from Howard’s other adventures of the Cimmerian in that it takes place in the lush forests and the winding rivers of the far-flung Pictish Wilderness.  The buckskin-clad Aquilonian settlers and log structures are strangely out of place in “Black River;” a big departure from the exotic settings and lost cities of other Conan stories.  But this is just what Howard was trying to do – break the mold and expand the possibilities by bringing the American frontier to his imaginary Hyborian world.  Further, this Conan story has no sexy females in it, either as heroine or villainess, but neither did it skimp on the other elements of a good Conan yarn – sorcery, intrigue and mayhem.

Here is a statement made by Howard to girlfriend Novalyne Price in 1935 shortly after selling “Beyond the Black River” to Weird Tales that reflects his fervent desire to write a definitive novel of the American Frontier:

“I wouldn’t say this to anybody but you, but, by God, I know what I can do. I love this country, and I know damn well I can write about it. I know damn well I can write a novel that will move, be about people facing real odds.” He became exuberant. “I tried that yarn out to see what Wright would do about it. I was afraid he wouldn’t take it, but he did! By God, he took it!”

The plot of “Black River” is a classic one, a story of a modern civilization pushing deep into the frontier, infringing on the territory of the local inhabitants and their way of life. While there are some parallels with James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Howard, did not own a copy of the book.  However, it is certainly possible he read it in school or “borrowed” during one of his many late night forays to public libraries in the surrounding towns.  It’s easy to see where Fort Tuscelan and the Picts could be substituted for Cooper’s Fort Will Henry and the French and the Hurons, with the Pictish Wilderness taking the place of Colonial New York state.  Howard did own copies of several books by Robert W. Chambers, another writer of frontier fiction.  He even derives a few names from Chambers’ books for “Beyond the Black River.” 

The story is fast-paced with Conan and the settlers fighting an evil Pictish wizard named Zogar Sag, as well as the united tribes of Picts who are intent on driving the settlers out of their territory.  It’s a violent death-race as Conan and his fighting companion Balthus cut and slash their way to the settlement in an effort to warn the settlers and get them to safety. Of particular interest here are the characters of Balthus and Slasher, who appear to be Hyborian doppelgangers for Howard and his dog Patch.  By the end of the story, the conflict between the settlers and the Picts has cost many lives and nearly wiped out the Aquilonian frontiersmen.  One of the few wounded surviving foresters speaks these words that are usually attributed to Conan:

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind.  Civilization is unnatural.  It is the whim of circumstance.  And barbarism must ultimately triumph.

It’s a reference on the outcome of this tale as well as Howard’s own beliefs that modern civilization was a decadent and dying venture, and that it would be eventually purged by barbarism, just as civilizations of the past had fallen under the sandaled feet of various barbarian hordes. 

A Western-like setting was also used for the Conan story “The Servants of Bit Yakin.” It takes place in an underground natural cavern setting filled with fantastic caves and subterranean rivers, much like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, which Howard visited shortly before writing this story.  Howard, still excited from his visit to the caverns, writes to H. P. Lovecraft:

God what a story you could write after such an exploration! … Anything seemed possible in that monstrous twilight underworld, seven hundred and fifty feet below the earth. If some animate monster had risen horrifically from among the dimness of the columns and spread his taloned anthropomorphic hands above the throng, I do not believe that anyone would have been particularly surprised.

The plot of this tale involves Conan scheming to outwit a rival, Thutmekri and steal the Teeth of Gwahlur, the treasure of a man named Bit Yakin, who even though deceased, has a gang of violent gray semi-intelligent apes as his servants that continue to do his bidding. Bit Yakin was the voice of an ancient oracle for centuries before his death. Of course, there is a pretty slave girl named Muriela involved, which complicates things somewhat for Conan.

In the end, Conan gets the girl and loses the treasure, but has a new plan to fleece gold prospectors in neighboring Punt out of their riches. Certainly, in this case, Howard channels his enthusiasm from his trip out West into “Servants” and again brings a bit of the American Frontier to his Hyborian world.

With “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” Howard abandons his Western locales and returns to more conventional Hyborian terrain – a god-forsaken desert town named Zamboula located in an area comparable to the present day North Africa. But even here one can easily imagine Conan as a down-on-his-luck gunfighter, with little more to his name than his weapon, being taken advantage of by the evil saloon/hotel owner, and coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress (though she is a far cry from a schoolmarm).  As you can see, there are shades of “The Man with No Name” in play here.

Unlike a typical Western story, “Shadows” features bad men of a different sort, with Conan facing men more barbaric than he in the form of blood-thirsty cannibals, an assassin who strangles women and children, and a sorcerer who delights in tormenting a girl with four deadly cobras. Needless to say, all are meted out justice in Conan’s on own unique way and he leaves the accursed city at the end of the story far richer than when he arrived.

Part II / Part III /Part IV