Last night I finished reading Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard. I think it is an excellent book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the creator of Conan, or anyone interested in the pulp markets of the early 20th century.
As Finn points out in his afterword, his biography may have omissions. There may be things said in it that later will be refuted. However, it’s obvious the book was written by a man who loves Howard’s work, and who was able to remain pretty objective in relating the facts of Howard’s life. I thought the constant references to Texas were a bit much, but maybe that’s just because I’ve been raised on God’s side of the Red River. No, I’m sure Texas, particularly as it was in Howard’s day, did play a huge role in the creation of Howard’s characters and settings. The book is written with love, but also with a desire to be honest about a man who has achieved nearly mythical status in fantasy literature.
The book relates the Howard family’s history, their many moves from one boom town to another during Robert’s first nine years, and their eventual settling in Cross Plains. I would have liked to learn more about how much Isaac Howard pressured Robert to get a “real” job, but most of those details just don’t exist any more. Finn gives us many facts, and he also makes some speculations, but is able to use Howard’s letters to back up what he says.
I was first introduced to Robert E. Howard through Conan the Barbarian – Collector’s Edition back in 1982. Already a fan of Tolkien and various other “high” fantasy authors, I went after the glut of Conan novels published in the wake of the film. Eventually I found my way to the Ace paperbacks with Robert E. Howard’s name on them, along with L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. I collected them all, and still have them. I swallowed the story of Robert being … too close to his mother, driving out in the desert to commit suicide, etc.
Fortunately, authors Steven Shrewsbury and Bob Freeman pointed out that most of what I thought I knew was wrong. My favorite part of Finn’s book was the final chapters where he talked about what de Camp did to Conan, how Isaac Howard was involved, and overall just explaining the most logical reason and circumstances to explain why such a brilliant, troubled man would shoot himself in the head at 30 years old. I’m now working to collect the new editions of all of Howard’s work, free of de Camp and Carter’s editing and additions. Books like The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane and Kull: Exile of Atlantis and I want to read his boxing stories, collected in Waterfront Fists and Others and his westerns, like The End of the Trail: Western Stories (The Works of Robert E. Howard).
That said, I can’t hold too much against de Camp. If he hadn’t done what he did there might not have been one Conan movie I really like (sorry Steve and Bob, but I do love that film!) and another that’s just ridiculous. In other words, if de Camp hadn’t screwed around with Conan, I might never have found Robert E. Howard at all.(And I wouldn’t struggle off and on with my own fantasy series.)
And if that was the case I wouldn’t be making my English 3 class write a persuasive essay on Howard and Lovecraft’s debate of civilization vs. barbarism this semester. haha Yeah, I look forward to reading those essay. Not! We don’t have any Howard or Lovecraft in our English Dept. book room, so I made them read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild as the study of retrogression to barbarism and Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (Dover Thrift Editions) as a pro-civilization piece. They also read Stephen Crane’s short story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” and will have to find one more source on their own.
Anyway, back to Howard for a moment. I’ve love to go to Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains this year. It’s about a seven-hour drive for me. However, I don’t want to get there and not know anyone. I don’t think my wife would care to hear the panels and such. Is anyone reading this planning to attend? Mark Finn is this year’s GoH and there’s a panel deconstructing his biography. Should be fun.