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Strange to consider that it is a book which is now as old as the United Nations, similarly superseded in so many ways but whose importance can likewise never be eclipsed.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

New-Pledge-Levels-Issue-Spread

As a reader and amateur historian of the field of the fantastic, this is the type of publication I want to read.

-Keith Taylor

If you have some time this weekend, you might want to take a look at the Skelos Magazine website, which is up and running.  All sorts of information is located there, including a plethora of different options for ordering the The Journal of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy.

The first issue is now shipping and this is one magazine you don’t want to miss out on.

HowardSkullface-1

It has become fashionable to regard Robert E. Howard’s Steve Harrison as the author’s lone failure. Much is made of what Howard expressed in letters about disliking hardboiled detective stories as both an author and a reader. Emphasis is placed on the fact that very few of the Steve Harrison stories found a market in the author’s lifetime. Critics measure the Steve Harrison tales against Hammett and Chandler and dismiss Howard’s efforts with disdain. All of this ignores how the character first came to prominence in the late 1970s when Berkeley Books collected “Lord of the Dead” and “Names in the Black Book” in Skull-Face.

Tarzan01h6As a 45-year-old man today, I first discovered Robert E. Howard through the worlds of Conan and Kull from Marvel Comics. My youth in the 1970s had seen me move from Tarzan films to the far more exciting jungle adventures found in DC and Marvel Comics. These comics led me to challenge myself to read the wonderful Ballantine editions of the original Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As a comics fan, the cover art by Neal Adams and Boris Vallejo was half the attraction. A trio of low budget AIP movies with Doug McClure led me to discover the worlds of Caspak and Pellucidar which were back in print courtesy of Ace Books with gorgeous cover art by Frank Frazetta. I soon found Tarzan in Pellucidar in the Marvel Comics series. There was an excitement that made me believe there were far more fantastic worlds to discover.

I found these worlds in Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs was never quite the same. Burroughs was Paradise and Howard was Paradise Lost, but damn if that Forbidden Fruit didn’t taste better than anything else. I was a latecomer to church. Consequently, I resented losing out on Porky Pig cartoons on Sunday mornings. My Mom attempted to entice me with a Children’s Bible. The illustrations were nice, but I was mainly interested in The Old Testament which at least had the Flood and Samson to commend it. Along came Conan and Kull comics and suddenly I found characters that could rival Tarzan but lived in a world closer to The Old Testament but far more interesting to my young mind.

By the time I was thirteen, I had enjoyed a brief obsession with Ian Fleming’s James Bond series before discovering Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books. These opened a world that was to become my favorite retreat from reality and one that continues to resonate with me well into middle age. The Berkeley edition of Skull Face and the Donald M. Grant hardcover edition of Lord of the Dead immediately caught my eye when I first discovered them in my early twenties. Here was Robert E. Howard moving away from the fantastic worlds of his own imaginings and turned loose on the twentieth century. I was in my forties by the time I first encountered El Borak and, along with Steve Harrison, I now knew the Howard characters that held me under a spell greater than his barbarian heroes.

severin_1Howard’s Weird Menace stories, despite their Rohmer influence, were also very much in keeping with his more celebrated sword and sorcery fiction. Steve Harrison was a powerful latter-day barbarian as equally at home with an axe as a pistol. Harrison teamed with Khoda Khan (from Howard’s El Borak tales) to battle the sorcerous Erlik Khan is reminiscent of the bond forged between Kull and Brule the Pict. Harrison removed from the seedy fog-enshrouded River Street to run down a voodoo cult in Bayou country could just as easily be set in Stygia. Those expecting traditional hardboiled gumshoe tropes are doomed to be disappointed, but fans of Howard’s fantastic fiction will find much that will prove the writer’s talents were not bound by place or time. Harrison, like Nayland Smith (the protagonist of the Fu Manchu series) has been granted a roving commission to run down the sort of exotic crimes that fall beyond the white man’s comfort zone of the 1930s.

That last bit is likely the key for me. Howard’s characters are men out of time. Whether Kull or Conan or Solomon Kane or Steve Harrison or El Borak, they are men without homes who function best in exotic worlds. They are old souls who do not fear a world that isn’t white and civilized. They are men at home with Eldritch terrors, in exotic jungles, facing Oriental cults or serpent worshippers. They know this world is far older than white civilization with its fragile sense of security and a neat, orderly view of the world and its creation. They are not afraid to step beyond conventions for the non-white world of exotic danger and pagan thrills promise far more than the restrictions of civilization. And so it is for readers these past 80 years who understood that Robert E. Howard’s fiction was finite, but the promises they hold were infinite.

For anyone who accepts the common belief that Howard stumbled and fell when he created Steve Harrison, I urge you to revisit “The People of the Serpent,” “Names in the Black Book,” or “Graveyard Rats” and see them for the masterly Tales of Weird Menace they are and enjoy the same wonderful world of Robert E. Howard as it exists in a modern world. For a world of fantasy and escape is not ossified in the past, it is accessible today as it was yesteryear. You just need to step outside the confines of a conventional world that is safe and dull and realize the world is as it ever was and always worth discovering Gnostic truths and exploring uncharted corners. The key is to read and learn to open your mind for ultimately, that is the lesson of Burroughs and Howard and Rohmer and every other author who raised the lantern and shone its light on shadows.

William Patrick Maynard is the authorized continuation writer for the Estate of Sax Rohmer. His third Fu Manchu thriller, The Triumph of Fu Manchu will be published by Black Coat Press later this year.

stolol299414

noun

1. any of several plants (genus Dasylirion) of the agave family of the southwestern United States and Mexico that resemble a yucca; an alcoholic beverage made from this plant. It grows in northern Mexico, New Mexico, west Texas and the Texas Hill Country.

Commonly known as Desert Spoon, sotol, which grows in northern Mexico, New Mexico, west Texas and the Texas Hill Country, produces a distilled spirit similar to the mescals of central Mexico. The Chihuahua Indians fermented sotol juice into a beer-like alcoholic beverage as early as 800 years ago. Spanish colonists introduced European distillation techniques in the 16th century.

The Desert Spoon takes approximately 15 years to mature and yields only one bottle of sotol per plant. It typically grows on rocky slopes in the Chihuahuan desert grassland between 3,000 and 6,500 feet above sea level. Sotols produce a flower stalk every few years. The outer leaves are removed to reveal the center core, which is taken back to the distillery. The core can then be cooked and/or steamed, shredded, fermented, and distilled.

While distilled sotol is attaining international recognition, at the Fate Bell Shelter, which is on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, sotol is depicted in paintings on the rock walls. Sandals, baskets, ropes, mats, and many other items of sotol fiber show that it was a highly important resource to ancient Pueblo people. These artifacts date to around 7000 BCE.

[origin: 1881; American Spanish, from Nahuatl zotolin palm tree]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

From Sonora to Del Rio is a hundred barren miles
Where the sotol weave and shimmer in the sun—
Like a horde of rearing serpents swaying down the bare defiles
When the scarlet, silver webs of dawn are spun.

There are little ’dobe ranchos brooding far along the sky,
On the sullen dreary bosoms of the hills;
Not a wolf to break the quiet, not a desert bird to fly
Where the silence is so utter that it thrills.

[from “The Grim Land”; to read the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 302 and Robert E. Howard Selected Poems, p. 342]

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

Ellis40c

This is Part Three 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 Two

This entry filed under Howard Illustrated.

Latin_Poet_Ovid

noun

1. a wreath to be worn on the head

[origin: 14th century; Middle English chapelet, from Anglo-French, diminutive of chapel hat, garland, from Medieval Latin cappellus head covering, from Late Latin cappa]

HOWARD’S USAGE:

Nial of Ulster, welcome home!
What saw you on the road to Rome?—
Legions thronging the fertile plains?
Shouting hordes of the country folk
With the harvest heaped in their groaning wains?
Shepherds piping under the oak?
Laurel chaplet and purple cloak?
Smokes of the feasting coiled on high?
Meadows and fields of the rich, ripe green
Lazing under a cobalt sky?
Brown little villages sleeping between?
What saw you on the road to Rome?
“Crimson tracks in the blackened loam,
“Skeleton trees and a blasted plain,
“A heap of skulls and a child insane,
“Ruin and wreck and the reek of pain
“On the wrack of the road to Rome.”

[from “Shadows on the Road”; to read the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 520; Always Comes Evening, p. 30; Robert E. Howard Selected Poems, p. 204]

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

elkins_01

All fans of Howard’s humorous westerns have been waiting for two volumes of those yarns to be published by the REH Foundation Press — fear not the wait is over with the impending publication of Volume 1.

Complete details and pre-ordering information can be found on the Robert E. Howard Foundation website.

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction, News.

Arkham6d90aca4b6da2b7f42ebfe8a01a5f9b5

By the way, I recently took the liberty of using your mythical “Arkham” in a single-stanza rhyme which Mr. Wright accepted for Weird Tales, and which fell far short of doing justice to it’s subject. Here it is:

Arkham.

Drowsy and dull with age the houses blink

On aimless streets the rat-gnawed years forget—

But what inhuman figures leer and slink

Down the old alleys when the moon has set?

– Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 Dec 1931 (AMtF 1.238, CL2.280)

What did Robert E. Howard know of Arkham, which caused him to compose this quatrain? What might he have known? By December 1931, Lovecraft had published less than a dozen stories that mentioned the fictional town, which comprised what he sometimes called his “Arkham cycle.” (SL2.246) Most of these were published in Weird Tales, and many of them we can be sure by comments in his letters that Howard had read.

Weird_Tales_1924-01The eponymous dwelling of “The Picture in the House” (National Amateur Jul 1919, Weird Tales Jan 1924) was set in “an apparently abandoned road which I had chosen as the shortest cut to Arkham,” and places the town in New England. Howard had apparently missed this story when it came out, but Lovecraft apparently later sent him a copy. (AMtF 1.85, 97; CL2.93, 118)

“The Festival” (WT Jan 1925), Howard did read (AMtF 1.159; CL2.179), though as a locale it is set mainly in Kingsport until the very end, when the narrator ends up in St. Mary’s Hospital, where the kindly staff were helpful enough to borrow the copy of the Necronomicon from nearby Miskatonic University for his perusal.

“The Unnamable” (WT Jul 1925) also mentions St. Mary’s Hospital, but adds an “old burying ground” with “a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb.” While Lovecraft is not known to have ever sent Howard a copy of his street plan for Arkham, he did have a very definite geography developed in his imagination while writing of the place, one readers get a sense of in lines describing “a lonely field beyond Meadow Hill, a mile from the old burying ground, on a spot where an ancient slaughterhouse is reputed to have stood.”

One of the fuller descriptions of the land around Arkham was given in “The Colour Out of Space” (Amazing Stories Sep 1927), which opens with:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods no axe has ever cut. There are narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooks trickle without ever having caught the first glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but they are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.

It is not entirely clear if Howard ever read this story, as there are no mentions of it in his letters, but Lovecraft mentions it in his letters to Howard from time to time. (AMtF 2.533, 582, 656; SL4.170)

The “Colour” described Arkham as “a very old town full of witch legends,” but it was in “The Silver Key” (WT Jan 1929) that Lovecraft grows fulsom about the old town’s history, describing it as “the terrible witch-haunted old town of his forefathers in New England, and had experiences in the dark, amidst the hoary willows and tottering gambrel roofs.” This of course helps to point out Arkham as corresponding closely with Salem and its famous witch-trials, something that Lovecraft himself would confirm in an early note to Howard: “Old Salem with its spectral memories (the prototype of my fictional ‘Arkham’) is only about 60 miles from Providence.” (AMtF 1.31)

dunwich-horrorThe Arkham Advertiser, the town newspaper, first made an appearance in “The Dunwich Horror” (WT Apr 1929); and Howard certainly read that story. (AMtF 1.17; CL2.50) While little of the town is described, much of the action centers around the Library of Miskatonic University. Howard, living in Cross Plains and having attended Howard Payne College in Brownwood, would at least have some impression of a college town in a rural district. Miskatonic University and the Arkham Advertiser would likewise appear in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (WT Aug 1931); Howard “went thirty miles to get the new magazine” (probably to Brownwood) and read it straight away. (AMtF 1.180-1, 205; CL2.220-1, 223)

The last story that would appear in Weird Tales before Howard probably composed “Arkham” was “The Strange High House in the Mist” (WT Oct 1931), where the eponymous house was located on a cliff such that “only the western side, inland and toward Arkham, remained.” Here we also get a brief description of “[…] a lovely vista of Arkham’s white Georgian steeples across leagues of river and meadow. Here he found a shady road to Arkham […]” Howard praised the story claiming:

It’s pure poetry of the highest order, and like all great poetry, stirs dim emotions and slumbering instincts deep in the wells of consciousness. (AMtF 1.217; CL2.256)

Weird_Tales_March_1942So much for the published references to Arkham that Howard might have seen; it is unlikely the man from Cross Plains had ever run across “Howard West—Reanimator,” unless Lovecraft had lent him a copy, and if Lovecraft did there is no mention of it. Of course, by 1931 the Texan was on the “circulation list” for drafts of Lovecraft’s stories, which included the then-unpublished novella At the Mountains of Madness (AMtF 1.231; CL2.273, 274), concerning an antarctic expedition from Miskatonic University, sailing out aboard the Arkham.

There is a possibility that Howard may have read “The Port” (“Ten miles from Arkham I had struck the trail”) one of Lovecraft’s sonnets in the Fungi from Yuggoth cycle. Lovecraft had sent along at least some of the poems; probably the typescript, but possibly a collection of excerpts from those that had been published at this point. Howard does not specifically mention “The Port” among his favorites, but it would remain a potential influence. (AMtF 1.32; CL2.61)

Slight though it is, this was likely all that Howard knew of Arkham—the rest being not published or available to him—and it is not so hard to trace some of the imagery in his poem, and at a time when Howard was already experimenting with a “Lovecraftian” style, such as expressed in “The Black Stone” (WT Nov 1931) Lovecraft himself was enthusiastic in the poem’s reception:

Your “Arkham” stanza is splendid, and I feel honoured that my imaginary city of brooding horror should have evoked such an image. Glad Wright took it, and hope you’ll have more verse for him before long. (AMtF 1.246)

Works Cited

AMtF   A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols., Hippocampus Press)

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

SL        Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols., Arkham House)