Sunday, June 24, 2012

Quotes, Facts and Scenes from the Worlds of REH: Howard's "Suicide Note"

I love reviewing and sharing literature about or inspired by Conan and/or Robert E. Howard himself; however, those posts are not a quick write. I wanted to do something I can do quickly and more frequently for the readers of CROM. In these posts you will find sometimes favorite scenes, quotes or facts pertaining to either Conan, REH or both.

This post refers to REH's "Suicide Note".

The myth goes like this, after Howard committed suicide, a page was found in his type writer with the following couplet:

All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;

   The feast is over and the lamps expire.

This is false on two fronts. First off, the couplet was not found in his typewriter. That is just one of many myths that have spawned from Howard's suicide. The couplet was on a typed piece of paper that Howard had in his wallet. The couplet was not actually by Howard. It is from "The House of Caesar" by Viola Garvin. 

Here is the poem in it entirety:

Yea — we have thought of royal robes and red. 
Had purple dreams of words we utterèd; 
Have lived once more the moment in the brain 
That stirred the multitude to shout again. 
All done, all fled, and now we faint and tire —
The Feast is over and the lamps expire! 

Yea — we have launched a ship on sapphire seas, 
And felt the steed between the gripping knees; 
Have breathed the evening when the huntsman brought 
The stiffening trophy of the fevered sport —
Have crouched by rivers in the grassy meads 
To watch for fish that dart amongst the weeds. 
All well, all good — so hale from sun and mire —
The Feast is over and the lamps expire! 

Yet — we have thought of Love as men may think, 
Who drain a cup because they needs must drink; 
Have brought a jewel from beyond the seas 
To star a crown of blue anemones. 
All fled, all done — a Cæsar's brief desire —
The Feast is over and the lamps expire! 

Yea — and what is there that we have not done, 
The Gods provided us 'twixt sun and sun? 
Have we not watched an hundred legions thinned, 
And crushed and conquered, succorèd and sinned? 
Lo — we who moved the lofty gods to ire —
The Feast is over and the lamps expire! 

Yea — and what voice shall reach us and shall give 
Our earthly self a moment more to live? 
What arm shall fold us and shall come between 
Our failing body and the grasses green? 
And the last heart that beats beneath this head —
Shall it be heard or unrememberèd? 
All dim, all pale — so lift me on the pyre — 
The Feast is over and the lamps expire!

The hardest truth about Howard's suicide is this: he did not leave a suicide note. Had he done so, there may have been far less speculation about his choice, and far fewer myths.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard

Front Cover

Recently, my day job has not left me much time for posting, but of course Conan, REH and his works keep a heavy rotation in my reading list. A few weeks ago I made the decision to join the Robert E. Howard Foundation; at the same time, I ordered Mark Finn's Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard. The following is not so much of a review as it is a capsule recommendation. I plan to share more from this book in the future.

Finn's book is one that I have wanted to read ever since it was first published, but for one reason or another, had not obtained a copy. I should not have waited so long to do so.

Back cover
Much of Finn's research comes from the letters of REH to various others (Howard's letters to H.P. Lovecraft being one source that is frequently quoted from). While L. Sprague de Camp's biography of REH is not in favor with many Howard fans (I myself have never read de Camp's book, so do not feel I can comment upon it), de Camp did do a number of interviews with people who knew REH and those interviews are utilized by Finn as well.

Finn does much in these pages to give an honest account of REH. He debunks many of the myths started by L. Sprague de Camp and others. The focus of the book is to show that REH was first and foremost a Texan story-teller of Tall Tales. Finn's  thesis is strong and well presented.

For the Conan fans, there is a chapter devoted entirely to the creation and writing of the original Conan stories. Warning, Finn admits that Conan is not his favorite character, nor group of stories; however, I would say they get fair treatment.

Blood & Thunder has many great photographs and quotations from Howard's letters and poetry. For these alone, the book was worth the price of admission. While I am at least a layman to the letters of Howard and his poetry, Finn's research has encouraged me to seek out more of the same.

I could give you a chapter blow by blow of Finn's book, but frankly, I would much rather just say that I enjoyed it and believe that all REH fans should give themselves the opportunity to enjoy it as well.

Signed and numbered

Friday, June 15, 2012

Quotes, Facts and Scenes from the Worlds of REH: "Red Sonja" Cameo

I wanted to start a series of posts that I could do quickly. I love reviewing and sharing literature about or inspired by Conan and/or Robert E. Howard himself; however, those posts are not a quick write. I wanted to do something I can do quickly and more frequently for the readers of Crom. In these posts you will find sometimes favorite scenes, quotes or facts pertaining to either Conan, REH or both.

This is a scene from Karl Edward Wagner's Conan pastiche, The Road of Kings. It involves KEW making a joke about the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith created character, Red Sonja. I actually intended to mention it in my review of the book, but it slipped through the cracks. The set-up is at a masquerade that Conan and his companions plan to strike out at their enemies at. While Conan is waiting for action to begin, he is approached by a young noble lady dressed in garments that might seem familiar:

A red-haired girl, wearing only a scanty halter and G-string fashioned of interlinked silver discs and dragging a two-handed sword in an absurd portrayal of a barbarian swordswoman, tilted her smiling face toward Conan's scowl. "Why so somber, my fellow barbarian?" she trilled. "I know a quiet spot where we two can repair to wage a friendly struggle. After all, it is not yet the time for removing our...masks."
"Is it not yet midnight?" Conan asked in a thick accent. "But it is almost time for the pretty falcon to dance, as she has promised."
The girl made a face behind her mask. "If you want to watch  some fool dance, don't let me detain you."
"Bitch!" Conan mumbled, as she clanked away. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

"Savage Sword of Conan 200"

SSOC 200 : A special story written by Roy Thomas and art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan the dynamic duo of the Hyborian age!!!

" Barbarians of the Border " Is a cleverly interwoven tale of Conan on an amazing adventure with all the trappings and fixings you’d expect , Giant bats , Sorcery , Wizards of course , action , swordplay , battle scenes and damsels in distress paired with the fictional account of how REH was inspired to create Conan…
On one of his day trips to San Antonio Texas REH happens across an antique store and decides to go in and peruse the shop. While he is checking out the guns,swords and knives a Mysterious stranger begins a conversation with him.
A little history lesson ensues about the ALAMO and TWO GUN BOB informs Mr. Topi ( The stranger ) that he is a writer having a dry spell and looking for inspiration by taking a little time off from writing to clear his head.
Then the two continue their conversation on the bus to the other side of the border where they part ways. I liked this exchange because TWO GUN talks about the magazines his YARNS appear in and mentions characters he’s created and you feel like this could actually have been part of REH’s life as it is quite possible he did sit down with a stranger one day and fill them in on who he is and what he does to put bread on the table. I felt like for a brief moment I had a glimpse into Howard’s life and it made me adhere to the character of REH playing out on paper and reeled me in. Clever writing at it’s finest. You see it is tricks and deliberate plot contrivances like that which writer’s use as a common tool to get the readers enraptured and enmeshed in the story. Something we are aware of going in.
Now back to the story : Later on we see Bob wearing a sombrero and Poncho about to walk into a Cantina where it clearly states on the wall outside Gringo’s are not welcome.
He goes inside anyway and sits down to sample some of the local cuisine. Not long after that he overhears some of the locals speaking English and talking about making an exchange and a tradeoff and he has been privy to some privileged information. The Waitress blows his cover to the bad men and they escort him forcefully outside and pull a knife on him to ask him just exactly how much he heard. One of the crooked dudes is Mr. Topi , Bob’s new friend from the antique shop. A scuffle , a knife and Bob winds up in the drink!!!
The bad guys take off and head off to their rendezvous. Bob drags himself from the water and heads out to figuratively cut them off at the pass. It’s a story you should all read and an issue of Savage sword of Conan you should all own.
All wrapped up in a fantastic Joe Jusko cover with righteous pin ups by Dave Simons and Mike Docherty!!! The articles within , the Story behind the story and a History of Savage sword as well as a write up titled “ The Father of Conan” by Glenn Lord of all people make the issue priceless. The entire package is worth your time and energies and I highly recommend everyone going out and getting hold of their very own copy of “Savage sword of Conan 200” It’s guaranteed to be a great yarn!!!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pastiche: Poul Anderson's Conan the Rebel

Front fold out cover

Introduction: In 1980, an author that I adore wrote a Conan pastiche titled Conan the Rebel. I really wanted to like this one, for two reasons. The first is, the novel is bravely set during Conan's time with Bêlit from one of my favorite Robert Howard Conan stories, "Queen of the Black Coast". Queen is amongst my three favorite Conan yarns, I view it as Howard's re-telling of Bonnie and Clyde in the guise of Conan and Bêlit. Their romance is narcissistic on one level, true on another, and I would say, dangerous to both. I assume the readers of CROM! have read Queen, but in case you haven't, I don't want to give too much away, so I end my discussion of it here.

The second reason I wanted to like this novel is Poul Anderson. I have not read a lot by Mr. Anderson, but what I have read, I have enjoyed. I have reviewed his books The Broken Sword, The High Crusade and Three Hearts and Three Lions at my gaming blog Random Encounters. All three of those works were recommended by Gary Gygax in "Appendix N" of literature which inspired Dungeons & Dragons (Robert E. Howard's Conan stories get a solid nod in the appendix, I might add). Appendix N has driven my reading habits for years. Another tick in Poul Anderson's favor is two of his works were selected by Lin Carter for inclusion in his edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series; the aforementioned The Broken Sword and Hrolf Kraki's Saga.

It not unfair to say that perhaps my expectations were too high.

Rear Cover

The Skinny: Conan and Bêlit come under the scrutiny of prophecy. The Stygian sorcerer of Set, Tothapis, fears that combined they may interfere with his visions of grandeur, so he sets a plot in motion to destroy them. Conan is drawn into Tothapis' web with the goal of rescuing Bêlit's brother whom she thought lost to her. In the course of the adventure, he discovers that he may very well be the fabled wielder of the Ax of Varanghi, which means he may be the saviour of an enslaved people.

The Good: First off, it is written by Poul Anderson, and while this has not been my favorite pastiche, it is still a decent read, just not a great read. Poul delivers with vile villains and interesting characters. Young Falco, with his naive love of a woman that is obviously not what she claims to be entertains. As does the young fierce daughter of a barbarian chieftain, Daris. Even his minor characters that appear briefly are good: he introduces a small tribe of warriors from the same land as Bêlit's crewmen. His villainess Nehekba, the high priestess of Derketa, is sultry and dangerous, if a bit naive herself. The battle scenes in the end are well written and exciting, as is a scene where Conan and companions deal with a nest of ghouls.

The Bad: I had a hard time keeping my interest upon this novel. Typically, I can read a Conan pastiche in two or three sittings. I kept putting this novel down without picking it up for days; finally, I slogged through the last four chapters just to finish it.

Anderson doesn't seem to have a firm grasp of who Conan is. I found his Conan too fawning with his affections for Bêlit. Yes, they were in love, even madly, but I found myself cringing every time Conan said, "my beloved", "my dearest", etc..  Upon meeting Bêlit's brother, he embraces him with much emotion exclaiming "By the Lance of Crom!" By the what of who? Crom had a lance? A barbarian god had a lance? Also, at one point in the novel, Conan looks out a window and decides that climbing down the wall would be too dangerous. This is the same Conan who thought nothing of scaling the "impossible" walls of the Tower of the Elephant?

His grasp on Conan's world was also shaky in my opinion. I thought his use of magic in was too "high" for believability. There was a ship of Set which was powered by magic, no oars or sail needed. This just didn't sit well with me and seemed almost too fantastic.

The Ugly: I expected a story about Conan and Bêlit. My favorite she-pirate appears in three chapters and then only briefly. What I thought was going to be an expansion of one of my favorite Howard stories was a missed opportunity and I felt let down.

Summary: I can't with a clear conscience recommend this novel. It is not the worst Conan pastiche I have read, but it was written well and had interesting characters and concepts. If you have not read "Queen of the Black Coast", do so. Then read this novel and let me know what you believe.

One final note, this is the fifth book in the Bantam series of the new adventures of Conan (prior to the Tor novels); however, the book is labeled as book 6 on the spine. All of my research has pointed that there were five books in this series and that this one is the fifth. If anyone has any enlightenment for me about that, I would appreciate the information.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Portrait of a Barbarian"

Neal Adams Bernie Wrightson Darrick Robertson Joe Sinnott I have always loved since the beginnings of search engines to search out images of CONAN by artists that rarely or not so often render images of our favorite son of is usually the spot I find the most interesting images. There are pages and pages of CONAN images shared there and today I share the ones I recently found and got the biggest thrill out of. Enjoy the images and be in awe at the remarkable renderings of some of the top talents in the industry working today.... "CONAN awesomeness!!!"

Saturday, June 2, 2012

B-List Barbarians: Clifford Ball's "Duar the Accursed""

In the month of June in the year 1936, Robert E. Howard chose to put a bullet through his head. That choice ended a promising career and left a void in the fledgling sword and sorcery genre fan base. Over the decades, many authors have tried to fill that void, but Clifford Ball was the first. Not much is known about Clifford Ball. Perhaps Lin Carter gives the most information known about Ball in his notes for the anthology Realms of Wizardry:

"Between [May 1937] and November 1941, when [Clifford Ball's] last story was published, Weird Tales printed a grand total of six stories under his byline. As far as I've been able to discover, he never published anything else (at least under that name). Nothing by Ball appeared in any of the weird-fiction magazines outside of Weird Tales; neither did he have anything in the exotic adventure pulps, like Magic Carpet, Oriental Stories, or Golden Fleece. He may have been a visitor from another fictional genre, who dropped in to try his hand at Howardian swashbucklery, then dropped out and returned to more lucrative neighboring fields. No one seems to know" (170).

I have three of those six stories in my possession. "Duar the Accursed" was reprinted in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy anthology New Worlds For Old, edited by Lin Carter; "The Thief of Forthe" was reprinted in Savage Heroes, edited by Michael Parry (also in The Barbarian Swordsmen, edited by Sean Richards); lastly, "The Goddess Awakes" saw reprinting in the also Lin Carter edited, the aforementioned Realms of Wizardry. To the best of my knowledge, two of the other three have never been reprinted ("The Swine of Ææa" and "The Little Man"). "The Werewolf Howls" was reprinted in 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories.

In this installment, I will look at "Duar the Accursed".

Duar's introduction in this story is as a captive to Queen Nione of the Krall Dynasty, ruler of Ygoth. Upon the revelation of his true identity to her, it is obvious that Duar has a reputation throughout the realm:

"'Duar the Accursed'!' breathed Nione. 'What demon brings you here?'...'Demons have always prompted your inclinations, O Duar! Even in this secluded mountain kingdom have we heard of your familiars from Hell! Whence came the red rain of blood that covered the battlefield of Kor and blinded the eyes of the Sivian hosts while your followers cut them to ribbons? And where the giant black raven that flew above your pirate galley when you ravished the coasts of Krem? Why did the mountains of Fuvia shatter themselves over your castles while the mighty hurricane destroyed your villages and your fields as the raging seas finally obliterated the whole of the kingdom King Duar had raised with his pirate hordes?Why, O King who is now a slave?'"

From this short inter-story introduction, a good bit of back ground is laid for Duar, who is known as Duar the Accursed. First, it is obvious that Mr. Ball intended his Duar to be a Clonan. Like the barbarian of REH creation, Duar has done and seen much in his days. He has been a warrior, a pirate, a king and now a slave. Later in the story, it is learned that he has a past life in which he was a high priest of an elder god. This is one thing that sets him apart from Conan. He seems destined to re-live this past life, but Duar also seems un-eager to do so.

His turning away from his fate is inferred as the cause of his cursing, hence the title "The Accursed". Duar himself states: "Mine has been a strange life, it's true. Perhaps there is a destiny for me. I sometimes think that when I have swerved from the chosen path the Gods ordained, it is the very elements who rise to set me back".

This is perhaps the single most important element that marks Duar as different from Conan. Conan's god Crom gives men strength and bravery at birth, but leaves them be from there. They must make their own path, and Conan does, always of his own free will. In the universe of Duar, men are fated by the gods, and a free willed warrior such as Duar is cursed for exercising his own fate. There are other elements, Duar is often visited by a spirit of sorts named Shar who seems to be entwined with his past life. In this story, Shar sets him upon the path to find and destroy the Rose of Gaon. Beyond that, I wish to give nothing more of the story away.

Of  the story "Duar the Accursed" , L. Sprague de Camp states: "Ball had here a number of portentous ideas, which he didn't quite know what to do with", and to that count, he may be right as this is the only story featuring the barbarian. Mr. Ball also stole some ideas out right, for instance Ball mentions "...the great white apes of Barsoom" and didn't even attempt to hide the fact that this is stolen straight out of Edgar Rice Burrough's Mars books. That aside, I think de Camp's dismissal of Ball is out of hand.

While Duar is clearly a Clonan, Ball did pack a lot of interesting background around the character and that was rounded out by a fast paced story written well enough to carry it along. It is a shame that Clifford Ball never did return to the character of Duar. I would like to know if the poor barbarian ever escaped his fate, or was he a victim of it?