Frisco Beat: At Least One Guy Hits the Century Mark

Doing a quick check of the net, it looks as if Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 years old today.

The event could have slipped past my radar, except a few days ago I got a deluxe one-sheet poem from D. S. Black titled “For Lawrence Upon a Century” all about “a library of insurgency” and I thought, hey, is the century mark coming up? I checked, and so it was.

Last year about this time my pal the poet Donald Sidney-Fryer asked me for some reason if Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters, both of City Lights, were alive. That day, who could say? So I hopped on the net and to the best of its tentacled ability the answer seemed to be yes.

I told DSF, based on the info uncovered, that Ferlinghetti would be 99 in a couple of days. 99 seemed like a lot, but 100 is more.

DSF just wrote again — a real, old-time, stamped letter — to report that he’d just had a full physical — including an “electrocardiac exam wid all dem wires and t’ings” — and at the age of 84 is “astonishingly HEALTHY”. . . .

Could it be that I have met at least two poets who have cracked or might crack one hundred big ones?

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Mort: Ten Years After Tompk

Hard to believe it was ten years ago today when Steve Tompkins punched his ticket. Only 48 years old, hospitalized for food poisoning after hitting Burger King, then out of the blue a heart attack. If they can’t handle a heart attack when you’re already in the hospital, game over.

Some people talked at the time, as they will, of assembling a memorial collection of Tompk’s major essays, but that didn’t happen. And I can say that it doesn’t really matter, because most of those essays appeared in venues that are still current — such as my The Barbaric Triumph, now part of an eBook LitCrit MegaPack on Amazon —- or as intro or afterword matter to the Del Rey trade paperbacks of Robert E. Howard. Even if those fall out of print, enough copies saw print to satisfy the Tompkins-collecting needs of a generation or two of new fans.

I think of Steve fairly often, most stridently earlier this year when I stumbled across the documentary Sad Hill Unearthed on Netflix. Starts a little slow, ten minutes or so, then becomes one of the best docs I’ve ever seen. As you know, I’m a fan of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Tompk was a complete nut on the subject. Every few minutes I’d think, Man, if only Tompk could see this! — he’d love it!

At the time I wrote an in memoriam statement for Two-Gun Raconteur, a Howardian zine that has faded into the past. The print run didn’t rival the Del Reys, so here it is again on the anniversary, for those of you who haven’t seen it:

Tompk Passes into the West

By Don Herron

One of the first things I noticed about Steve Tompkins was his objection, expressed mildly enough, as were most of his objections, to the term legendary — at least in the way I tossed it about in blurbs: Glenn Lord’s legendary fanzine The Howard Collector, my legendary essay “Conan vs. Conantics,” that sort of thing. I was just having fun, but Tompk apparently wanted legendary to apply to the old time legends of yesteryear, when legends of all kinds are cinched up and ridden into the sunset every day.

Without question, I suspect Steve has the best chance of any Howard critic to date of becoming an actual urban legend. He was riding the subway in New York post 9/11 when a couple of Homeland Security ops came by conducting a random search of bags and backpacks. On most days, no problem, but in his backpack Steve had a sinister-looking helmeted skull courtesy one of his essays winning a Cimmerian Award. As it emerged from the bag, the ops viewed the grim totemic trophy with immediate suspicion. What the hell was it? Trapped, in one of the very few situations where winning an award for best Howard essay doesn’t sound all that great any more, Steve tried to think of something that would explain it — uh, Robert E. Howard, Conan. . . . Wait, one of the security ops said, you mean like Frazetta? Steve jumped on the opening. Yeah! Like Frazetta!

Tompk had the makings of a legend the first time he came into my sphere. I had been talked by Ed Waterman and Leo Grin into editing another critical anthology on Howard to follow The Dark Barbarian, and Leo was pushing Steve hard for the lineup in what would become The Barbaric Triumph. In REHupa Tompkins already was notorious for doing fifty and one hundred page zines, starting one survey after another that would ebb away after two or three parts as he hopped over to another subject, then another — one front quote for a header wouldn’t do if he could use six or ten, maybe a couple of those in German.

Editing the erupting wordage was brutal, but Steve finally gave me something close to what I wanted out of him. And he was by no means the only essayist I was beating heavily with a stick as the book avalanched toward the finish line — it was in that frantic period that I coined the nickname “Tompk” as a timesaver since I had both Steve Tompkins and Steve Trout plugging away, just referring to “Steve” wasn’t clear, and I realized a five-letter limit made it all even.

Leo later paid the price for promoting Tompk when he launched The Cimmerian and got to edit one monstrous amorphous essay after another over the five-year run. I recall looking at one which began with a line that referenced three or four things, dropping the title Appointment in Shannara — obviously punning off the John O’Hara novel Appointment in Samarra with reference to the Terry Brooks fantasy series. I understood the refs, of course, but still read along in absolute disbelief as Steve spun his wheels for four or five pages without ever getting to the point, if there was a point. I freely admit that I find his unedited essays almost impossible to read, a real chore, and only skim around in them looking for nuggets — in particular, his “Mind-forg’d Manacles?” in a recent issue of The Dark Man is one of the worst train wrecks I’ve ever seen, jumbled-up mounds of verbiage randomly littering the landscape.

Perhaps naively, I always hoped that Tompk would get to the point where he’d drop the needless excesses, but for every piece edited in blood by Leo next up Steve would trot out some intro or afterword for a Del Rey book in which he quoted everything he could think of — the Kitchen Sink Gone Wild approach. What the hell. I suppose we all do what we can do, and I admit I had some fun with Steve for a few years by threatening to get him a gig reviewing for Publishers Weekly, where the total word count for everything, author, title, price, the whole review, was under two hundred words — less than a typical Tompk sentence or two! I told Steve, think of it as akin to writing a haiku. . . . I told him I’d call him up, talk him through the first couple of reviews. . . . Man. The very idea of Steve writing less than two hundred words. He would have exploded.

I did convince Steve to do one shorter item, his piece in The Cimmerian where he discovered that George Orwell had read some of Robert E. Howard’s boxing yarns. What a dazzling piece of detective work, a discovery which really helped amp up Howard’s centennial year. Leo told me that Steve had the info buried in one of his long rambling essays, and I thought immediately that the significance of the find might get lost — worse, what if someone else stumbled across it while the longer essay waited to see print? Tompk was first to notice, and deserved all the credit.

While I never got to meet Steve, I called him from my cell quite often, usually on Sundays when he’d be holed up in his lair in Brooklyn and I’d be driving into San Francisco to do the Dashiell Hammett Tour. He’d often ask for firsthand stories about Fritz Leiber, and we’d sometimes talk politics — what a great double-whammy moment it was when I spotted the Cheney/Voldemort bumper sticker on the freeway! I sincerely regret that Steve won’t be around to sit in on the Circus Maximus if Sarah Palin runs for president next time. Despite what some might have you believe, not all Robert E. Howard fans are conservatives. On the liberal side you can count me and Steve — and also Howard’s major successor, Fritz Leiber.

And it was Steve who spotted a decades-old error in “Conan vs. Conantics” as we proofed the Cimmerian Library booklet Yours for Faster Hippos, —celebrating that essay making it to thirty years. Steve wrote, “I’m not seeing any typos at all so far, but I think the scene Don mentions on page 36, wherein Conan is trying to get in good with Crom, might be from de Camp and Nyberg’s The Return of Conan/Conan the Avenger rather than from Conan of the Isles. . . . I’ll check my disintegrating paperbacks tonight.” I told him I’d check, too — what an ordeal it was to wade once again through the dismal sludge de Camp was trying to pass off as equal to Howard! — but added, “I suppose if the memory burned into my brain is wrong, still, THAT is the memory burned into my brain, and we can let it slide and someone can ‘catch it’ later on.”

The illusiveness of memory! Yes, I was wrong that the scene where Conan sacrifices a bullock to Crom was in Isles. Meaning that within six or so years of reading, mercifully I had begun to forget those miserable pastiches — and that de Camp had, as well! When Damon Sasser published the essay in Two-Gun Raconteur de Camp massed every possible counter-argument he could round up, but didn’t mention that I attributed the bullock scene to the wrong novel. It’s nice to know now that he didn’t remember the texts any better than I did, and for that we can credit Tompk, who agreed that we should leave the error in the booklet: “I take Don’s point about leaving the recollection the way it is to demonstrate the workings of myth and memory.”

Rob Roehm, another regular on The Cimmerian proofing team, didn’t like the look of the comma we were using after Hippos in the title, but Leo and I were cool with it, and Steve offered this opinion: “I really like the comma at the end of the Hippos title — it’s sort of like an ace doing a victory roll in the sky over the Western Front in 1918.” Victory roll, indeed! I replied in an email: “Oh, yeah, Steve — I also meant to observe that you get a lot more fun out of books than a human deserves. . . .”

Sometimes we’d talk about a potential third critical anthology I had in mind on Howard, where Tompk stood ready to contribute, no doubt in pitched combat against every editorial wish I might have, but we’d have worked it out. He told me he’d been saving up his ideas on Howard’s Crusader tales for that project. Just think, Steve Tompkins on the Crusader cycle, forced to the wall by someone getting him to hone the words to a sharp edge — it would have added another deep notch to his legend.

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Tour: Some Media No More

Don's Hammett Tour Book makes the Wall St. Journal

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon — and who knows?, maybe for the rest of your life — the Some Media clump in the banner above is going to disappear.

Every few years I dink around with the website, spruce up the sidebar, check to see if links on major items are still alive. And most of the TV and radio links have gone dead — or maybe they’re still out there someplace on the net, for people patient enough to track them down.

I consider most media ephemeral, but if an interview pops up I’ll give notice. Just scurry over fast before it disappears.

One of the print/online articles I liked was the review in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Nolan on December 4, 2009, covering Xmas Gift Books. As you can see from the image at top, the most recent tour book made the cut. You can still get to his article, but to read more than the first couple of paragraphs you need to sign up.

Shortly after that one the walk was blurbed in USA Today for December 18, 2009 by no less than Otto Penzler, whose personal collection has gone on the block recently. $75,000 for the first edition of Red Harvest. Wowza.

But 2009 was a decade ago (nothing in the 40-plus year history of the Hammett Tour, but a long time for most things), so it’s time to move on.

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Frisco Beat: Anniversary 101 for Stan McNail

As it turned out, the first installment of my short-lived review column for Lit, a literary supplement for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, hit print in May 1995 — timing that allowed me to wrap up the piece with a tribute to a pal of mine.

I wrote: “On April 4th the Bay Area lost one of its finest horror writers when Stan McNail died, age 77, in his Berkeley apartment. He came to San Francisco from his native Illinois in 1953, and is best known locally for founding The Galley Sail Review, a poetry quarterly, five years later. At one time he even acted as poetry editor for The Bay Guardian. I’m one of the admirers of his many horror poems, little masterpieces of macabre atmosphere. I think they are as good of their kind as are the ghost stories of M. R. James. You’ll find them collected in Footsteps in the Attic, Something Breathing, and At Tea in the Mortuary, whose title poem offers a tea party where the deceased describe their gruesome, violent deaths. “Then Rose spoke up with a strident voice,/ “I suffered too, for I died by choice,”/ And showed us the bruises from the noose/ On her twisted neck, where the flesh hung loose.” The narrator — vintage McNail — ends with:

With nothing to show and nothing to tell,
I squirmed with shame when a silence fell
And they turned to me. I felt so cheap
To confess I had simply died in my sleep.

Thus wrote I, back in the day. Everybody in our circle of horror devotees felt that Stan had shorted us, dying at 77, when his dad was still alive at the time and in his 90s.

Stan did have a heart attack in the night in his room — 1630 University Ave suite 42 (the windows just over main doorway) — and was found lying on the floor. Perhaps that detail adds frisson to the poem quoted above.

Today is the 101st anniversary of his birth.

If I’d been on my toes this time last year— and not dying, as it were, from congestive heart failure — I could have commemorated the 100th Big One. But even if I hadn’t been distracted, most likely I wouldn’t have thought of it. Few hard details about Stan’s life are available online or in the so-called “standard” reference sources, so it’s not easy to summon up his birthday. Until now.

I only thought to look for the date after Paul Dobish, one of my Arkham ephemera collecting pals (you’ll find him cited in my article on the subject in Firsts), brought an interesting collectors detail about the Arkham House first of Something Breathing to my attention.

I figured, yeah, cool, people need to know about that — might make a good excuse for a blog post on a birth or death day.

Now, when exactly was he born?

I dug the birthday out of the file on Stan kept by Steve Eng, which somehow ended up in my hands. Steve was the main guy, and certainly the most talented, to begin serious surveying of horror and fantastic poetry. In effect, he was the equivalent of Dirk Mosig, the major figure to kick off modern Lovecraft scholarship and criticism. More pedestrian pundits have carried on their work.

Stanley Duane McNail was born March 14, 1918 in Centralia, Illinois — the spelling of the name had been changed from the traditional McNeil. He moved to San Francisco by the early 1950s (I was sure of 1953 when I did my obit, but you can fudge the info if you want — in 1953 he would have been 35 years old).

Stan told Steve Eng, “In the late fifties I participated in Poetry Workshops at the University of California Extension Center, San Francisco, under Lawrence Hart, who was the mentor of the ‘Activist’ movement in poetry. . . ‘active’ imagery and the active line in poetry.”

I knew that Stan had worked for Greyhound for a long time — in management, I’m pretty sure, not driving a bus. His obit in the San Francisco Chronicle states he held down that post “for 15 years, retiring in 1983.” So, if correct, 1968-1983 — for many of those years and afterward he kept a room in 525 Hyde Street off Geary. He relocated to Berkeley in 1986.

While the Arkham edition of Something Breathing — usually tagged between $150 and $300 on the o.p. market — is his obvious major claim to fame, and most likely the toehold that keeps Stan on that sheer cliff-face of immortality, I wouldn’t count out his poetry journal The Galley Sail Review just yet. He began the little magazine in 1958 and continued until 1971 — then revived it, so that it appeared sporadically for 37 years. Early poems by Bukowski, some of The Beats, and hundreds more.

One anecdote Stan told me about the poetry scene in North Beach in that hothouse era of the late fifties/early sixties as the Beats were coming to dominate the scene (pushing the Activists and others firmly to the side) was an ongoing feud of some sort he was having with the poet Jack Spicer. Both Spicer and Stan were gay men. Spotting Spicer in a bar frequented by poets, Stan walked over and planted a kiss firmly on his mouth.

The feud continued.

But to give this celebration of Stan McNail a bit more oomph, let’s get into the dope noticed by Paul Dobish.

Arkham House collectors are going to like this one. How often do you get any new collectors info on books from Arkham?

In Thirty Years of Arkham House the print run on Something Breathing from 1965 was recorded by August Derleth as only 500 hardcover copies. One of the few Arkham titles printed by Villiers in England, using green cloth for the boards instead of the usual Holliston Black Novelex so familiar to fans of the press.

In the course of running his Other Worlds bookstore, Paul Dobish saw several copies of Something Breathing pass through his hands.

“As both a collector and bookseller,” Dobish reports, “I would compare multiples when I had them to see which copy I wanted to keep as a collector and which to put up for sale as a bookseller.

“It was in the course of doing such a condition check that I happened upon the fact of two different shades. Since then, I have seen more than a single copy of each shade.”

In short, Arkham collectors — and especially for the completists who must have each and every permutation of items from the press — Something Breathing is bound in two distinctly different shades of green. At least.

Dobish says, “I do not know how many were bound in one shade versus the other shade. It is also possible that there are more than two shades, although my guess would be that there are not.

“One — let’s call it pine — I would say is more of a green-green. The other —olive-ish — I would describe as more ‘muddy’, that is towards being a brown-green rather than a green-green.

“But even if you are pretty certain which green you have, if you go seeking the other green elsewhere, how do you get someone to describe their green well enough to know whether it is the one you have or the one you do not have?”

Scans are imperfect enough it might be hard to get the idea across. It’s not as if one cloth is green and one purple. Both green.

But let’s give it a shot. At top  the “muddy” or subdued green — that’s what I have on my copy.

The bottom is the more vibrant, more “Irish” green.

Happy hunting.

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Hammett: Zobeck v. Otto

Just got a note from Terry Zobeck commenting on the auction of Hammett titles from the library of Otto Penzler.

Terry reports: “I lost out on that Red Harvest—I went as high as $70,000 but had to stop when my wife found me with the mortgage.”

(I think Terry is kidding, but can’t say for sure.)

“I’m not surprised it beat out the Falcon. As it is his first book there are fewer copies out there, especially in that condition, than the Falcon.

“I have copies of about everything that Otto had up for sale (including a Pru Whitfield letter), except for the UK editions, but not in that condition (I only have The Glass Key in jacket and it has an ugly chip out of the front panel).

“The stuff dreams are made of, indeed.”

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Hammett: Chump Change

Evan Lewis, my de facto reporter on the ground for news of the auction of books from the Otto Penzler collection — which is to say, I’m never going to bother to follow something like that, whereas Evan is covering it like skin on his blog — just featured the results for the Hammett titles that were on the block.

Not bad. Red Harvest the high ticket at $75,000.

And even though some people don’t think paperbacks are “real books” the Spivak of Blood Money, a.k.a. The Big Knockover, with a gift inscription to Lillian Hellman brought in $12,500. Over twelve thou sounds like real book money to me.

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Death Lit: Is It Noir or Is It Dark?

Had another review pop to life.

If you want to surf over and give it the old gander, feel free.

I figure this one, more or less, is maybe 80% of what I sent in/intended.

The intro by Lawrence Block, which I didn’t even try to get into in the restricted word count of the review, is pretty weird. Starts off talking about I Love Lucy and meanders over into blurbing the Akashic Press City Noir series (which Block has contributed to, of course), along the way maybe trying to draw (it’s hard to tell) a fine (very fine) distinction between lit that is noir and lit that is dark. Yeah, you know, one is noir and the other one is, I guess, dark.

Bits cut: I gave the James Reasoner story a one line blurb (“The prolific James Reasoner provides a Western novel in miniature with ‘Night Rounds.’”), but that’s easy to cut if you’re fitting it all into a certain word count. I was surprised that my ref to Joyce Carol Oates hit the cutting room floor. I figured she’d be a name to conjure with. . . .

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Hammett: A Paperback for Lillian Hellman

Apparently a large chunk out of Otto Penzler’s personal collection is going on the block over the next year or two. I know this news because A) it is public information, no black cats out of the bag or anything, and B) mostly because Evan Lewis has been going nuts blogging about this group of titles or that. He wants them all and can afford none. I can sympathize.

Still, one can look them over and drool for awhile, I suppose.

Evan started off with the first edition Race Williams novels, then did some Hammett, some Chandler, some first edition Sherlock Holmes — plus complete runs of the Sherlock books as they appeared earlier in The Strand magazine. . . .

Then some more Hammett. . . .

Could link to each and every one, or just to the auction house, but how about the Hammett set with an inscription to Lillian Hellman in a paperback, plus the rest of the Dannay edits , a couple of letters to Pru Whitfield.

Evan will tell you about the auction house.

(And remember what I once said about the issue of Hellman and paperbacks — don’t think this news undoes any of that theorizing. Plus, Evan seems woefully unaware of all the work we’ve been doing here in re: the Hammett anthology Creeps by Night.)

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Rediscovered: Machen, One, Two, Three

As I was saying, every few years now I bump into Alan Gullette, most recently a couple of weeks ago. Don’t know how many years had passed between that encounter and the previous one.

But that’s the reason I’m aware that today is the anniversary of the birth of Arthur Machen, 156 years back. Alan is Getting Out of Dodge — or the Bay Area, depending on how you look at it — like so many others and wanted to lighten his load by selling off a few things from his library.

I went up and helped out, mostly picking up items I could have gotten along the way but never did. A book by William Hope Hodgson. A set of Clark Ashton Smith otherwise still in print, but I’d never bothered to place the order.

Mostly, though, I added to my Machen shelves, which is why the Welsh mystic’s birthday intrudes on my awareness. Kept seeing it in one item or another, realized, wait just a minute here. . . .

Nabbed the biography by Mark Valentine, another book I hadn’t gotten to yet — but I have a lot of the books about Machen, even Arthur Machen: Weaver of Fantasy by William Francis Gekle, Round Table Press, 1949. Might as well have another. The Valentine you can find lots of copies on sale, if for hefty metal. The Gekle, not so much.

Think I also cleaned out Alan’s supply of the journal Faunus from several years of a membership in the Friends of Arthur Machen club, and now I’m thinking, maybe I should join FoAM myself. And maybe I’ll get around to it.

He had a copy of the Knopf yellowback of The House of Souls, a second printing from August 1922. Grabbed that one — I already have a copy (first printing May 1922; I figure I’ll keep both, since the endpapers on the first are plain and on the second decorated, as the Knopf firm began to realize they had something going on with Machen titles).

I’ve had my original copy since circa 1974 or 75, at least, but reading along in it discovered that two sheets (pp271/272 & pp 273/274) were missing. I doubt the bookseller even noticed, and as I recall, it was cheap. In St. Paul, Minnesota I used Richard L. Tierney’s copy to make Xerox inserts, and that’s the copy I’ve been using happily all these years. As I’ve said, my Machen collection is ragtag, but for my tastes you can’t beat the personal association with RLT — me and Tierney, in the Reading Machen Game together.

So, I had Knopf yellowback one and two, and as I was dipping into the run of Faunus found reprinted a brand new introduction that Machen wrote for the third yellowback printing, April 1923. I may have known about that intro at one time, but if so it slipped from my active memory as I pursued one thing or another. I prefer the Knopf printings with the new intros, of course.

In keeping, then, with my ragtag I-buy-Machen-to-read aesthetic, I suddenly have in hand a one, two, three — one with Xerox inserts, two with new endpapers, three via the medium of a journal.

Since I now have two copies of the Knopf House of Souls, I probably don’t need a later printing just to have the intro in that book.

Or do I?

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Two-Gun Bob: Brian Leno, Reporting Ringside

Ringside with Robert E. Howard by Brian Leno


Courtesy the production wizards over at The Cimmerian Press, yesterday Brian Leno popped out his second TriplePunchPack — Ringside with Robert E. Howard.

Just an appetizer against the full feedbag of the book he’s working on, an in-depth look into the boxing world known to REH. But it’ll give you a taste.

Pieces brooding over the life of Howard, the lives of boxers — Jim Tully and Ernest Hemingway — what happened when Howard’s local fave Kid Dula went to Chicago and cracked the fight card for Jack Dempsey’s first promotion.

Ringside with Leno and Howard. Cool.

Posted in Boxing, News, REH | Tagged , , , , , |