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Convention Report: Robert E. Howard Days 2019

Convention Report: Robert E. Howard Days 2019

Howard Days 2019 Cross Plains sign-small

Robert E. Howard (1906–1936) is most famously known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. But he was a very prolific pulp writer of various genres who created several other memorable characters including Solomon Kane and Kull, gracing the pages of Weird Tales and various other pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s.

To celebrate the importance of this writer, Robert E. Howard Days exists as an annual event (first weekend of every June) that brings together Robert E. Howard (REH) fans and scholars to celebrate the life of this great pulp writer. This event takes place every year in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, the hometown of REH. The primary locus of events takes place at the Robert E. Howard Museum, which was actually the home of REH and his parents, and the place where most of his greatest stories were written.

After years of planning to attend Howard Days, I finally bit the bullet and made the road trip to Cross Plains (from Minnesota!) After arriving in Abilene late Wednesday, I got up early Thursday morning in order to drive to Brownwood (30 minutes or so south of Cross Plains) to go to Greenleaf Cemetery where REH’s grave resides.

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Hither Came Conan: Deuce Richardson on “Black Colossus”

Hither Came Conan: Deuce Richardson on “Black Colossus”

Hither_BlackRedPicEDITEDIt’s our second-to-last story essay here at Hither Came Conan. Deuce Richardson, who I’ve talked a lot of REH with, looks at “Black Colossus.” And he digs deep on this one. You absolutely should read on!

Robert E. Howard’s “Black Colossus” is the greatest Conan yarn ever written. Within it, Howard distilled–for the first and best time–nearly all the elements that Conan fans have loved over the course of the last nine decades. Saddle up, REH fans. This is going to be one wild and bloody ride.

The tale begins in the deserts of eastern Shem, a hundred miles northeast of Stygia. There we find Kuthchemes, the ruined and shunned city once ruled by the wizard-king, Thugra Khotan, in the days when the Stygian dominion marched all the way to the rugged uplands of eastern Koth.

Shevatas, master-thief of Zamora–itself the City of Thieves in a nation of thieves–has spent long years preparing to plunder the tomb of Thugra Khotan. Robert E. Howard describes him thus:

“This was Shevatas, a thief among thieves, whose name was spoken with awe in the dives of the Maul and the dim shadowy recesses beneath the temples of Bel, and who lived in songs and myths for a thousand years.”

Shevatas penetrates the ivory-domed sepulchre, achieving his life-long dream…and then dies “as no man has died in three thousand years.”

Here lies the first bit of genius within “Black Colossus.” Namely, REH gives his readers the last chapter of a fine sword-and-sorcery tale as the first chapter of his Conan yarn. The tale of Shevatas is a mini-epic in itself and it makes a perfect blood n’ thunder intro to the main story.

Not only does it serve up great action–mortal combat against that archetypical Howardian antagonist, a giant serpent–but it also introduces eldritch, Lovecraftian horror from the git-go, which is a well-nigh essential ingredient in great sword-and-sorcery tales.

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Ramblings on REH (Encore Appearance)

Ramblings on REH (Encore Appearance)

Ramblings_KullAxeDue to some difficulties, I do not have a Hither Came Conan essay ready to run today. I hope to have one next week. And, work is brutal at the moment. Also, as this post goes live, I am on day three of a four-day camping trip with my son. So I did not have time for an original Conan essay — or even a new A (Black) Gat in the Hand post, either. So, from waaay back on August 10, 2015, here’s one of the very first REH-related posts I wrote here at Black Gate. I think the first was a review of Harry Turtledove’s middling Conan of Venarium.

I was an REH neophyte at the time: I’ve learned a LOT since then. I do plan on expanding on the Howard/Hammet similarity some day. I saw that from the very beginning. Since you probably missed this post the first time around, read on!


In a way, Robert E. Howard’s career is similar to that of Dashiell Hammett. Both men had huge impacts on their genres (Howard wrote many styles, but he’s best known for his sword and sorcery tales). Both were early practitioners in said genres. Both men wrote excellent stories for about a decade. And both men ended their careers on their own.

Hammett, who seemed more interested in a dissolute lifestyle than in writing, effectively walked away from his typewriter. He wrote his last novel in 1934 (The Thin Man) but produced literally nothing for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. He could have gone back to writing the hard-boiled stories that made his career, but he voluntarily ended his writing life.

In 1936, Howard’s mother was failing in a coma. He walked outside to his car, pulled out a gun and killed himself. His writing career was more effectively finished than Hammett’s would be.

Both were supremely skilled writers who chose to deprive the world of their talent and left decades of stories unwritten. But there was a key difference between the two. From the beginning, Hammett was acclaimed and recognized as the leader in his field. Though Carroll John Daly came first (barely), there is no comparison between the two in critical view.

Howard was not critically lauded. His first Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (a rewriting of the Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”), appeared in Weird Tales in December of 1932. The next two Conan tales were outright rejected!

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Hither Came Conan: Jeffrey Shanks on “A Witch Shall Be Born”

Hither Came Conan: Jeffrey Shanks on “A Witch Shall Be Born”

Hither_WitchTreeofWoeEDITEDThree stories to go! This week, Robert E Howard Foundation multiple time award winner, Jeffrey Shanks, takes on “A Witch Shall Be Born.” That ain’t exactly an easy task. See what he’s got to say about this one.

Thou Shalt Not Suffer “A Witch Shall Be Born” — Or Maybe You Should?

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is not usually on anyone’s list of the top tier Conan stories – despite containing what could arguably be the most powerful and iconic scene in the entire series. The tepid reception to “Witch” is not entirely unfounded – the novella-length yarn is heavy on exposition, awkwardly constructed, poorly paced at times, and somewhat anticlimactic in its dénouement. And yet it has moments in which Howard’s powerful vision shines through the flaws. Howard Jones and Bill Ward noted in their recent REH Re-Read series  that it feels a bit like a draft, and I tend to agree. The story was written hastily in just a few days as Patrice Louinet has noted, and feels a little like a piece of choice meat that is a bit undercooked – It could have used another minute on the grill, but it’s still pretty damn tasty.

“Witch” was published in Weird Tales in the December1934 issue. As with “Black Colossus, it is a Hyborian version of one of Howard’s blood and thunder, Harold Lamb-style “Oriental” tales, in the same vein as the Crusades yarns he had been writing a few years earlier. The small kingdom of Khauran in which much of the story is set is something of analog to the historical Crusader kingdom of Outremer, a Western (Hyborian) polity precariously set on the fringes of the Eastern steppes.

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Hither Came Conan: Woelf Dietrich on “Wolves Beyond the Border”

Hither Came Conan: Woelf Dietrich on “Wolves Beyond the Border”

Hither_Wolves1EDITEDAnd with only four stories remaining, Hither Came Conan is winding down. Of course, this series has featured a different leading Robert E. Howard expert each week, examining one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Author Woelf Dietrich looks at the ‘most complete, incomplete’ Conan tale from Howards, “Wolves Beyond the Border.” Read on!

I am to provide proof that “Wolves Beyond the Border” is the greatest Conan story ever told by Robert E. Howard. Except that Conan never appears in the story apart from a mention or two and Howard never completed the story nor was it published in his lifetime. L. Sprague de Camp finished the fragment relying on a one-page outline discovered with the unfinished manuscript that Howard had written in the 1930s. Lancer Books published it in 1967 along with three other stories in Conan the Usurper.

So, as you can see, I find myself in a peculiar situation. A potential dilemma given the awesome essays published so far in this series. The competition for the best Conan story is a fierce one. How, then, do I convince you that this story is the best despite the absence of Conan?

Let us start with the plot, shall we?

Plot

We are introduced to “Wolves Beyond the Border” with a mini-prologue:

“The revolution progresses with hurricane speed. While knights and sergeants in gleaming mail clash in charge and counter-charge on the Aquilonian plains, civil war rages along the Pictish frontier between the partisans of Conan and those of Numedides. The Picts, naturally, see their opportunity. Here is a tale of some of the events of that strife-torn land, as told by one of the survivors of the conflict; for the Hyborian Age was a time of stirring events in many times and places, not merely those in which Conan was present.’

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Hither Came Conan: The Khoraja Saga

Hither Came Conan: The Khoraja Saga

Hither_BlackColossusWTInterior1EDITEDDeuce Richardson will be looking into “Black Colossus” for Hither Came Conan. I wrote an essay last year for my friend James Schmidt’s Mighty Thor JR’s blog, looking at the expanded saga of the gem from that story. Surprisingly, it made the Preliminary List for the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards! I’ve since read more Conan pastiches involving Khorajan affairs, and I expanded the original essay. So, here’s the updated version. My thanks to James for letting me appear over at his blog.

Robert E. Howard was a master worldbuilder, as Jeffery Shanks wrote about over at Black Gate for the Discovering Robert E. Howard series. The history of Hyboria is sprinkled throughout his Conan tales, creating a vast backdrop, in both time and place. Conan’s own Cimmeria, Set-worshipping Stygia, the jungles of the Picts, mighty Aquilonia, fallen Acheron: it’s really amazing the depth and breadth that Howard created in the short story format (there was one novel, Hour of the Dragon, which drew on existing short stories – an approach used by Raymond Chandler a few years later: he called it ‘repurposing.’)

Khoraja is a small nation southeast of Koth. It isn’t one of the great countries of Hyboria, but it sat front and center for “The Black Colossus.” “Colossus” was the fourth published story to feature the Cimmerian, and one of five to find its way to print in Weird Tales in 1933. Editor Farnsworth Wright had rejected two others (“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl“) that would have added to that total. But before Conan enters the story in Khoraja, we get a little history from Howard.

Shevatas the thief is exploring the ruins of Kutchemes, once a great city and part of Stygia when its borders extended far beyond their present state (‘present’ in the Conan stories, that is…). Prior to Shevatas actually doing anything, we get this from Howard:

Eastward, Shevatas knew, the desert shaded into steppes stretching to the Hyrkanian kingdom of Turan, rising in barbaric splendor on the shores of the great inland sea. A week’s ride northward the desert ran into a tangle of barren hills, beyond which lay the fertile uplands of Koth, the southernmost realm of the Hyborian races. Westward the desert merged into the meadowlands of Shem, which stretched away to the ocean.

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Hither Came Conan: Bob Byrne on “Rogues in the House”

Hither Came Conan: Bob Byrne on “Rogues in the House”

Hither_RoguesMarvelEDITEDWhen I was pitching this series to folks, I was using the title, The Best of Conan. I didn’t come up with Hither Came Conan for about eight months, I think. Yeah, I know… The idea behind the series came from an essay in my first (and so far, only) Nero Wolfe Newsletter. The plan for 3 Good Reasons is to look at a story and list three reasons why it’s the ‘best’ Wolfe story. And I toss in one ‘bad’ reason why it’s not. And finish it off with some quotes. You’ll be reading more 3 Good Reasons here at Black Gate in 2020.

So, I’m going to take a somewhat different tack from those who have come before me (I doubt I could have measured up, anyways) and pick out two elements that make this story one of Howard’s best recountings of the mighty-thewed Cimmerian. Then, throw a curveball from the Wolfe approach and highlight a few items worthy of note.

OUR STORY

Obviously, you need to read this story, but here’s a Cliff’s Notes version: Nabonidus, the Red Priest, is the real power in this unnamed Corinthian city. He gives a golden cask to Murilo, a young aristocrat. And inside the cask is a human ear (remind you of Sherlock Holmes? It should.). We learn a little later on that Murillo has been selling state secrets, and the ear is from a clerk he had dealings with. The jig is up!

Given the choice of running away, waiting meekly for assured death, or finding a tool to escape his predicament, he chooses the latter. And Conan is that tool. Wait: that didn’t sound right…

Conan and a Gunderman deserter had been successful thieves until a fence, a Priest of Anu, betrayed them. The priest also happened to be a spy for the police. As a result, the unnamed Gunderman (more on that below) was captured and hung. Conan then cut off the priest’s head in revenge. A ‘faithless woman’ (presumably his current main squeeze) betrayed him to the police, who captured the Cimmerian as he hid out, drunk.

Murillo visits the cell and Conan agrees to kill Nabonidus in exchange for his freedom. Things go a bit awry and Murillo goes after Nabonidus himself but faints at the sight of the red priest in his house. Meanwhile, Conan, after casually killing his ex-girlfriend’s new lover and then dumping her in a cesspool, sneaks into the pits under Nabonidus’ house, where he encounters Murillo, who had been dumped down there.

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Hither Came Conan: Mark Finn on “The God in the Bowl”

Hither Came Conan: Mark Finn on “The God in the Bowl”

Hither_BowlFrazettaDarkHorseEDITEDWelcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert examines one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Today, it’s Howard biographer Mark Finn looking at one of the first stories, “The God in the Bowl.” And here we go!

The God Has a Long Neck

“The God in the Bowl” is part of the holy trinity of Conan stories. No, not “Tower of the Elephant,” “Red Nails,” and “Beyond the Black River” (though they are undoubtedly worthy of the appellation). I’m talking about the Original Trinity, the Big Three, the initial stories that Robert E. Howard wrote and submitted to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales back in 1932.

I consider these stories to be Ground Zero for the essence of Conan the Cimmerian as he was originally introduced. In “Phoenix on the Sword,” we meet Conan the King, an established old campaigner, with a whole lifetime of stories under his furrowed brow, struggling with his new role as a king. This was borne out of Howard’s desire to write fiction in the guise of history; tales of adventure and sweeping consequences, without having to fact-check and sideline his narrative vision. Using his unpublished Kull story, “By this Axe, I Rule!” as a jumping off point, Howard clearly had an idea of what he wanted to do.

But he had to sell it to the market that was buying, and since Oriental Stories, the magazine he’d been selling his historical adventures to, had shuttered its submission window, he turned to his old standby, Weird Tales. “The Unique Magazine” under the editorial direction of Farnsworth Wright enjoyed a kind of nebulous distinction as a kind of catch-all for any kind of story, so long as it was weird. This included anything with a spicy suggestion, such as ice maidens wearing gossamer robes and taunting a battle-exhausted youth. “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” was made for Wright, who would recognize its classical mythic underpinnings, but would also not mind the implied slap-and-tickle of the naked girl laughing at young Conan.

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Hither Came Conan: The Animated Red Nails That Never Was

Hither Came Conan: The Animated Red Nails That Never Was

RedNails_ConanMovieRedNailsAnimated_ValeriaEDITEDIn Keith J. Taylor’s entry for “Red Nails,” I mentioned an animated movie project, based on that story, which never made it to fruition. Here’s some more information on that ill-fated project.

Comic book artist Kevin Eastman is the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He also owned Heavy Metal magazine from 1992 to 2014, and I believe he is still the publisher.

Eastman, a long-time Conan fan, drew a variant cover for the new Savage Sword of Conan comic from Marvel.

Back in 2003, he was trying to set up a new studio and wanted to do a full length animated DVD of Red Nails with a limited theatrical release. A temporary deal was reached with Fredrik Malmberg’s company, but the business plan didn’t work out for Eastman.

Steve Gold, who had worked on the Conan and the Young Warriors animated television show, was also interested in a Red Nails project at the time. When the Eastman deal fell through, his company, Swordplay Entertainment, signed a contract with Malmberg to animate Red Nails. A screenplay was developed and Gold’s group looked for financing.

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Hither Came Conan: Ryan Harvey on “Hour of the Dragon”

Hither Came Conan: Ryan Harvey on “Hour of the Dragon”

Hither_HourWTCoverEDITEDWelcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert examines one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Today, it’s Ryan Harvey looking at the only Conan novel, Hour of the Dragon (not Conan the Conquerer!).  And here we go!

When Robert E. Howard’s twenty-one completed Conan stories are randomly distributed to twenty-one people, each challenged to argue that their assigned work is the finest of all, it brings up some interesting questions if you’re among the twenty-one.

The chances of getting your favorite? Approximately 4.8%. The chances of getting an excellent story, even if not your favorite? Quite high, I’d say. The chances of a mediocre one are low, but there’s certain to be something interesting to mine from those mid-tier works. And there’s only a 4.8% chance of getting stuck with the worst one, “The Vale of Lost Women,” or ending up with the longest one, The Hour of the Dragon.

So before I received my assignment, I felt safe I’d end up with something interesting, although not my favorite, and one that might be a novella, but still not the longest.

Then I got The Hour of the Dragon. Which is both.

I don’t know who else may have inadvertently gotten their true favorite Conan work and therefore end up effectively not participating in this experiment of trying to promote as the best something you don’t think is the best (there’s a 95.2% chance I’m the only one). But here I am. The Hour of the Dragon is the best Conan story and I don’t have to stretch to make that sound true, because it is true. At least to me.

The Hour of the Dragon is a gigantic work: the only Conan novel Howard wrote, twice as long as the second lengthiest Conan story and twenty-two times longer than the shortest. Even though 72,000 words, short for modern fantasy novels, it contains more incidence than novels three times its length. This is a monstrous mural of fantasy, crossing much of the Hyborian kingdoms and going as far south as Stygia.

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