Archive for August, 2016

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.