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.