Birthday 106 for Robert E. Howard today. Almost 76 years since he committed suicide on June 11, 1936. And his name lives on. Not bad for a writer who plied his trade in the pulps and didn’t see a single book appear under his byline in his lifetime.
On the human front, it’s been kind of grim in Howard Circles, with the death of Glenn Lord on the last day of 2011 — plus I heard that Margaret McNeel passed away on January 11. A nice lady, I always enjoyed seeing her whenever I’d roll into Cross Plains, Texas for Howard Days.
I was chatting on the horn with my Howardian pal and cohort Leo Grin and he mentioned something about Margaret that I don’t see in the obit, and if Leo heard it right back in the day. He is under the impression that Margaret was one of the last surviving Doc Howard Babies — among the many babies delivered by Howard’s dad, Dr. Isaac M. Howard, in the course of his local medical practise.
The passing of an era right before our eyes — but then what is Howardian fiction and poetry but the essence of the passing of eras, the foundering and crash of civilizations, the individual facing down the odds against the inevitable last stand? Yeah, no one is as simultaneously exciting to read and gloom-ridden to brood over as good old Two-Gun Bob.
On the literary front, I did notice that a book I’ve kind of been waiting for most of my life appeared last year. I was reminded by a tribute my occasional Guest Blogger Brian Leno did for Glenn Lord, in which Brian mentions that he hated the fact that the Lancer paperbacks for the Conan series stuck L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s names on the spines, and how impressed he was with the presentation Glenn gave Howard in the Lancer paperback Wolfshead — clean, classy, not an once of fat from someone trying to hog the action and glom onto the glory.
Brian has told me that his teenaged self of the 1960s actively hated looking at those defiled spines on his bookshelf, and my own reaction to the de Camp and Carter tampering soon enough unleashed “Conan vs. Conantics.” My essential opinion has never changed — if you happen to have a copy of the very first issue of The Cimmerian from 2004 you’ll see that I pretty much hated the overall presentation of the currently available three-book set of the Conan series from Del Rey. It is great that the pure texts for the Conan stories saw print for the first time — a true milestone. But the long introductions and page after page of crap notes in the back of those books are as intrusive as de Camp’s editorial meddling.
I enjoy good litcrit as much or more as the next guy, but if that’s what you want to do, hey, write your own book or put your profound thoughts up on a website. I always enjoyed talking with the late Steve Tompkins on the phone, but honestly I can’t read the long rambling intros he did for some of the other current Del Rey titles by Howard, and some of those books I just haven’t bothered picking up. (At least the supercilious intros de Camp did for the Lancer Conans were short, I’ve got to give him credit for that.)
But I realize that the idea of the presentation I want for Howard may well have been set by pulling Wolfshead off a spinner rack in a drugstore in 1968 — or the even more evocative 1969 Dell paperback of Bran Mak Morn, with one of Frazetta’s finest, moodiest cover paintings. Glenn edited that one without even insisting on a credit line on the title page. Man, those were great first editions.
And last year an edition of six of the finest Conan stories appeared without a ridiculous introduction or a trace of boring academic apparatus cluttering up the format. I’ll presume the stories are pure texts (at this stage of the game, you’ve got to have pure texts), and I’d rather have a painting by Frazetta on the front, but what the hell, yes, this is what I have wanted to see since the late 60s.
Released in connection with the film starring Jason Momoa, this book may well be the best thing to come from that project. The movie bombed, critics stuck it on worst films of the year lists. There was lots of chatter about it before, during, and after in the Howardian webisphere — I didn’t bother chiming in, because I didn’t have much hope for it and my opinions weren’t that different from many others stated.
I think Momoa would have been fine as Conan with a better director and if they had used a script without including a clunky origin story (one of the worst things comic books have contributed to the culture, that need for an origin story when you could just jump into the action and roll). And he should have been forced to wear blue contact lenses, like Whoopi Goldberg used to do — you’re playing Conan, you need those volcanic blue eyes.
No, I didn’t think the film was great — you could pick out an image here and there, a brief sequence, and see what they could have done if things had gone differently. I didn’t invest anything in it, so I emerged unscathed, unlike my Howardian buddy Lightin’ Al Harron, who may be scarred for life.
And I got this book out of it, on the side. Cool. If you’ve never read Howard or the Conan stories and want a place to start, here you go. Some of the best tales (and there are many other best tales awaiting after these). No lesser talent trying to “collaborate” with Howard, no one boring you to tears with stuff you don’t need to know.
And it only took a little less than a century!