Lots of pots on the old stove, as they say. I’m working hard at the theater and when I’m not doing that, I’m writing stuff! Yeah, as in, stuff to read. Like, I mean fiction and things. I know, it’s been a long while, and I’m overdue. I’m trying to balance that out with some non-fiction I’m working on; some essays, an introduction or two, a radio script (hello!) and a book review. But I have to tell you, I’m having a lot of fun writing the made-up stuff. It’s been grand to stretch those muscles out and give them a whirl.
August was a busy month. On the Robert E. Howard front, a discussion-turned-argument became an all-out slapfight, and I was right in the middle of it. One of the perennial debates in Howard Studies was the role and importance of L. Sprague de Camp in popularizing Conan and making him a household name. When it came up again, for the umpteenth time, it spilled over into two different yahoo groups and prompted one of scholars to throw up a series of articles on the REHupa blog called The de Camp Controversy. This led to a comment thread at Conan.com of the same name ...and with it came a continuation of the fight from the yahoo groups.
Well, I was right there in the thick of it, and I contributed a blog post on the REHupa site, and I was prepared to let it play out on its own. Then I got wind of the upcoming Underwood Miller book, “And Their Memory Was a Bitter Tree.” Specifically, I got to see excerpts from the intro by Arnie Fenner. And I ended up writing a fatwa to him, and this started a nice little slap fight all by itself. Fenner actually replied to me, and I was challenged by another de Camp defender, and it all played out in cyberspace like these things tend to do. The only good thing about blogs is that he who writes them gets the final word. You can read additional replies from Fenner and comments from the fans here, too. In the end, I feel like claiming the victory for my side, even as the book will come out, no doubt, with the introduction intact.
You might ask me why on Earth I would bother? Why on Earth I would care about something that seems so insignificant. Why make a stink, throw punches, and create a to-do about something like this? Well, aside from the reasons stated in my blog entries (which are, I feel, pretty valid), and aside from the notion that Howard was a Texas writer—THE most popular Texas writer if we look at the combined total sales of Conan through the years—and as such, he deserves better, there’s an answer that has everything to do with Howard being my raison d’être as a writer.
See, when I found REH—Conan, at that—I was twelve years old, angry at the world, and trying to figure myself out. Between the voice changing, the divorce and remarrying of both my parents, and the sudden surge of hostility (testosterone, ladies), I was lost. But when I found these stories that this guy had written, there was something about the way in which they were written that made me pay attention to them. The writing, I mean. Yes, I was taken to other places by the writing. But I was also able to step back, or at least I tried to, and look at how he put those words together so that they would snap and crackle in your brain. I read them aloud, trying to unlock the secret of the magic trick. I started writing, trying to duplicate the tricks, even as I didn’t fully understand how they worked.
In the re-reading of Conan through my teen-age years (and also in finding Howard’s other characters, like Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane), I came to some truths about the world. Some of those truths were cynical in nature: not everyone gets to be the hero, even if they think they are. After all of this time, I honestly don’t know if I have a dark streak in me and that’s what I like about Robert E. Howard, or I have a dark streak in me because I read Robert E. Howard. It’s a knot I can’t really undo.
But in all of that philosophical inquiry, and that sifting through sentences to find the gems that shine long after you’ve closed the book, and in digging up all of this information about REH and thinking about how he lived in the time and place that he lived, I found that I had put him in front of me like a carrot. Howard’s work is, to me, a kind of gold standard. It’s a measuring stick by which I can examine my own progress as a writer. I’ve read most of Howard’s stories and a decent chunk of his poems, and I always read them twice. Once for the sheer joy of being taken on a ride, and once to see how that ride was accomplished.
This is something that all writers do, I think. We take writing apart and examine it and try to understand how and why someone used the word that they did. Sometimes we try to imagine how someone could have written such a thing. Other times, we think we’ll never be as good as the sentence we’re marveling over. Most of the time, we’re trying to strip-mine the writing to extract whatever usable resources we can. But Howard doesn’t give up his gold so easily. Oh, we can see it, sure, but taking it for our selves, that’s another story.
Howard was a ferociously clever writer; he was crafty, inventive, a proficient bullshitter, and the best kind of mercenary wordsmith. He seldom gilded his lilies, used only the words he needed to use, and did so with a surgeon’s precision. What’s more, he did it intuitively, off the cuff, and frequently on the fly. Not all of his stories were written that way. Some took him multiple drafts. Sometimes, he stopped in the middle of a story, having lost the muse. Other times, he finished a tale in a single draft, and it was perfect. It was an artistic way to do things, even as he himself examined his markets and tried to create stories that would sell to them. This is how we got Conan, by the way, and in some ways, it was his best and worst work all at the same time.
All of that aside, I have found over the years that I have increasingly low tolerance for the people (and there are a shitload of them) who make a habit of repeating what they have heard, rather than talking about what they know. While I can’t fix this in everyone, I can do my level best to correct it regarding Robert E. Howard. He wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t mad with genius. He didn’t have an “unnaturally close” relationship with his mother. And none of the above means shit for shinola regarding his writing. His body of work, all of it, the funny stuff and the serious stuff, the humor and the horror, the realistic and the fantastic—all of it—was a part of Howard. Not his mother, not his father (especially not his father), not his situation, none of it. He was fiercely individualistic about himself, and for a man who had little control over his personal situation, he kept a tight grip on his writing career.
So when people like de Camp, Fenner, and all of the others, start talking about Howard like they know what made him tick—when in fact, they know less than that, since they have not examined closely the substance of his life or his art, it makes me want to punch something. It’s frustrating that most people are informed about Howard by a guy who was as far removed from Robert E. Howard himself in temperament and personality as Bozo the Clown was to William S. Burroughs. It’s retarded (not lame, but rather, slow and backwards) to think that de Camp’s insights, such as they were, had any basis in fact, since he got most of his information from the town gossip.
Bear in mind that I’m not saying I’m the only person who “gets” Howard, or that I’m the only one qualified to speak about him, but I know this much: the people who call Conan an overgrown juvenile delinquent haven’t read Conan at all, or if they have, it was a skim rather than a read. I know that the people who judge Howard the man by the twenty one Conan stories he wrote (not even one tenth of his total fiction output) might as well judge Ambrose Bierce by the story “An Occurrence At Owl Creek” and nothing else, which makes absolutely no sense, either. And I know that no one wants to discuss the real flaws in Howard, nor the real tragedies in his life, because they aren’t as sensational as the town gossip. I know well the “Liberty Valence” sentiment that states, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The people that do that to Howard do more harm than good. I’m not asking anyone to see what I see; I’m just asking people to see for themselves.
I’m almost 38 years old now, and that number doesn’t seem so terrible until I realize that I’m eight years older than Howard ever was, and that he had written a lifetime’s worth of stories and poems in just twelve short years. At this point in my career, I’ve inextricably tied myself to Howard as someone who knows something about him, and can speak with some authority about him and his work. So, I will continue to defend Howard in print, for the simple reason that he can’t do it himself. My goal will be for him to one day be recognized for the genius he was, with no conditional qualifiers attached.
The Gang’s All Here
After the second Clockwork Storybook Retreat this year, it was decided that we would get the band back together. Not to go on tour, but rather to help each other out with our solo projects. So, while not jamming together, we ARE jamming. You can check out the remodeled Fabletown boards, now that the five of us are represented. Old Clockwork Storybook fans, you’ll get a kick out of the story I’ve posted in my section. It’s right up your alley. Check out www.clockworkstorybook.net (and no, the old animation isn’t up and running...yet).
I won’t be attending World Fantasy this year, because of the exorbitant cost of flying to Canada. However, next year’s WFC is in San Jose, and so I will be doing that. I’m also making plans to be at San Diego next year, and I’ve got a trip to NYC on the books. In addition, I’m trying to expand my regional convention appearances next year. We’ll see how it all goes. Now what I really need is some sales to help offset those costs. I’ve got projects and proposals out, and I’m waiting on a short story to come back from where I sent it so that I can send it back out again. You know the drill.
It’s been good to start that writing process again. It’s helping to distract me from the massive falling off of our theater business due to high school football. We’re not out of the woods yet. If we can last one more year of this, we’ll be all right. Everyone keep your fingers crossed for us, and if you want to come up to see a movie, email me ahead of time so that we can have something good to show you.
Thanks for reading, for your support, and for your love.