Monday, 11 October 2010

Thomas Ellison Is Not Well: Robert E. Howard and Norman Bates

So, we've had Howard compared to Tweedledum, Al Capone, and now Norman Bates.

Of course!  How could I not see it before!

Oh, that's right...

Robert Bloch was inspired to write Psycho after reading about Ed Gein’s exploits but I contend parts of the novel were inspired by Robert E. Howard’s last days as chief caregiver for his sick mother.  In Chapter Nine, Norman Bates realizes he will always be mommy’s little boy.  The only time Norman feels like a somebody is when he’s lost in a book.  Robert E. Howard could never escape being mommy’s little boy, either.  When he was writing for pulp mags or letters to friends, Howard was Two-Gun Bob, Terror of Cross Plains.  Howard had fans, admirers, and editors who wanted to publish his stories.  But in the end, Howard was just Hester Howard’s frightened little boy.  On June 11 1936, Robert E. Howard shot himself moments after he learned his mother would never awaken from a coma.  Why did the creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and many other characters end his life when he was so close to being free from the burden that had crippled his writing for so long?  Maybe Norman Bates is right  when he says “I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.”

Lovely.  I don't see this ending up badly at all.  That said, I can see how someone could make the Bates-Howard connection if one bases it on Bloch's misconception of Howard the Oedipal, but it's clear that Thomas Ellison is saying that Bloch was basing it on fact, not misconception.

Also note the works he credits in writing the article:

I couldn’t have written this article without the following books: H.P. Lovecraft: Letters to Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard: Selected Letters 1923-1930, Robert E. Howard: Selected Letters 1931-1936, and of course Robert Bloch’s Psycho.

Yeah, no glaring omissions that I can see - apart from Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, The Last Celt, One Who Walked Alone, A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard, The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, A Means to Freedom... Selected Letters aren't bad choices at all, but the very title should indicate their fragmentary status.

Here's my response, which hasn't turned up on the article yet, but in case it doesn't:

You know, I was willing to hear you out until the final paragraph.

See, Robert Bloch had something of an ambivalent view of Howard's work.  He hated Conan, but had a good deal of respect for his other fiction.  I dare say he had something of a skewed idea of Howard as a man, too.  Certainly HPL only had his own correspondence to go on.  What's more, the little known about Howard at the time Psycho was being written was full of rumours, suggestions, misconceptions and outright inventions.  "Dark Valley Destiny" is notorious for it, and it was written by the guy in charge of the Conan trademark!

So, I can easily see the *perception* of Howard being excessively protective of his mother being an inspiration for Norman Bates.  However, taking that perception as FACT, to the point where you come up with such statements as "Robert E. Howard could never escape being mommy’s little boy" and a "frightened little boy," shows a grave lack of knowledge on the reality of the Howards' situation.

The reason for Howard's suicide is far, far more deeply ingrained than simple grief over the impending death of his mother - on the contrary, many believe that his mother was in fact the only thing keeping him alive.  For instance, Howard had been talking about suicide as a young man.  In many of his letters, he describes well the symptoms of clinical depression, years before Hester's illness became terminal.  Howard had come to terms with the fact that Hester would die: that's generally what happened with tuberculosis in the 1930s.  To assume that he killed himself because his mother was about to die is to ignore the very deep depression he quite clearly suffered from for much of his adult life.

"Why did the creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and many other characters end his life when he was so close to being free from the burden that had crippled his writing for so long?"

See, I think it could be argued that Howard WAS free as soon as he learned of Hester's impending death: he was free from the responsibilities that gave him reason to live.  As long as Hester was alive, someone needed to look after her, and Howard felt the only one who could do that.  Tuberculosis was a terrible, horrible thing, institutions were nightmarish places.  As Howard said, there are some things that a man just does, and caring for your sick mother when no-one else can was one of them.

We'll never truly know why Howard committed suicide, but the evidence suggests that Howard was suffering depression for a long time, and thought about suicide - and came close to going through with it - a number of times.  But he'd always come back, because his mother needed him.  Now that she didn't need him any more, he could finally go through with what he wanted to do: depart the earth on his own terms.

Besides, if it was truly Hester that was "crippling" Howard's writing for so long, then that would surely suggest that his writing had suffered substantially in his final years.  The opposite is the case: some of Howard's very best work was from the final year or so of his life.  There were other factors at work than simply looking after Hester: writer's block, Novalyne, not being paid for his work by Weird Tales.  Hester was far from the only thing affecting his work.

I think you'll find the following article of much interest:

It's highly acclaimed by just about every Howard expert I'm aware of, and .  You should also read "Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard," "One Who Walked Alone," and "The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard", as they give a much broader perspective on Howard.  Reading Howard's Collected Letters shows that Howard had very different styles of talking to different people: brash and argumentative to HPL, courteous and relaxed with Clark Ashton Smith, easy and jocular with Tevis Clyde Smith, and so on.  Judging REH's character through the veil of only one of his epistolary friends is just viewing REH through a single facet.

As for Howard's "porn stash": heh, if you consider sado-masochistic erotica "porn," I guess...

Let the games begin anew!  Mr Ellison comes across as an intelligent and concise gentleman, and I hope this doesn't turn ugly.  We've been quite lucky in past weeks, and it's clear Mr Ellison has good taste in fiction (I loved Psycho, book and film).  Perhaps this is just a case of jumping to conclusions rather than willful denial of facts.

EDIT: Re-reading the article brings up more problems, some of them really rather offensive.  For example:

One of Norman’s duties as a good son is cleaning up when Mother makes a mess.  In Psycho, Norman cleans the bloody bathroom and hides Mother’s victims in the swamp.  Robert Howard, also a good son, had to clean a different type of mess.  A letter from Robert Howard to Lovecraft dated February 11, 1936 reveals Howard has “had little opportunity to do any writing of any kind” due to his mother’s deteriorating health.  According to Howard, his mother ”requires frequent aspirations” and “is subject to distressing and continual sweats, and naturally has to have constant attention.”  The Howard family hired several women to help with Hester’s care, but none of them lasted very long.  Hester Howard’s constant care always fell on Robert’s shoulders.

See, the implication here is that Norman's obsession with his mother was, in some way, normal.  It quite clearly was not: there's a vast difference between a son in 1930s America looking after a mother with tuberculosis, and a paranoid schizophrenic who is so distraught by the death of his mother he effectively becomes his own mother, uses recordings of her voice to remind him of her, and keeps the corpse in his home.  There is nothing normal in Bates' behaviour.  At all.  Even if Mrs Bates was alive and responsible for the murder, Norman covering up the murder is not normal behaviour.  Sure, some loving sons might do it, as might some loving mothers cover up murders committed by their children - but it is not normal.

Howard looking after his mother was perfectly normal for the 1930s.  Sanitoriums in depression-era America were, simply put, hell-holes.  It's absolutely no wonder that REH refused to have his mother go back there.  I don't know the exact details of the situation regarding the help, but given REH, Dr Howard's and Hester's own personalities, I don't see why REH should be the only one blamed for none of them sticking.  Besides, it's a moot point considering this was the Depression, and it was getting more and more expensive to look after the deteriorating Hester, especially in her final year.  When you remember that Dr Howard was a practising county doctor who was away from the house at the time, there really was no-one else who could look after Hester, than Howard himself.

In effect, according to the article, Ellison is equating anyone who looks after their sick mother personally with the titular character from Psycho.  I find that incredibly offensive.  Perhaps it's because with the modern wonders of medical care and changing social conventions that Ellison can't understand that, but even in modern America there are plenty of people who look after ill relatives.  And they manage to get along without developing a murerous split personality.

EDIT: Damon Sasser has joined the fray with a mighty smackdown over at Two Gun Raconteur.


  1. wow erm.. hurm.. how do you keep finding all these people with which to butt heads?

    This, rebuttal is the equivalent of that bit in Braveheart when he rides his horse into the guys bedroom and caves his head in while still abed.

    You certainly deserve some kind of Howard MVP of the shield-wall award or something..

  2. Google alerts is a harsh mistress, Lagomorph. :P I don't go out looking for trouble, so much as it appears in my inbox. Some I ignore - you wouldn't believe the number of asinine reviews by IMDBers and the like - but something like this is worth addressing.

    I don't know about MVP of the Shieldwall... "Glutton for Punishment" award, maybe! :O

  3. GFP award. has a nice ring to it anyway.

    I am unfamiliar with Google Alerts, perhaps thats for the better. I'm not sure my blood pressure could withstand the pummeling.

  4. Years ago I talked with Robert Bloch about his influences for writing PSYCHO. He talked about Ed Gein and how his crimes inspired Norman Bates and the events of the novel (not the movie) but Robert E. Howard... well he never came up. Bloch didn't once mention him. Funny that.

  5. Lagomorph, Google Alerts is actually pretty good. I've found many more cool things than bad, really.

    Awesome that you talked to Bloch, M.D. Funny indeed that REH didn't come up.

  6. As I've said on here, I was unfamiliar before on how the debasing and denigration of REH is something like a cottage industry. Apparently, the most common dismissal I USED to hear, that he was just a "pulp writer", is no longer enough.

    It make me wonder at the motivations for all of this calumny.

    And by the way, I think you're analysis is spot on and more in keeping with what we know of Howard's attitude towards suicide.

    I'm glad you're out there, Al.

  7. "It make me wonder at the motivations for all of this calumny."

    Jealousy and disbelief, I think. To the critics, Howard is a dumb Texan lout who wrote insensitive, plot-heavy stories about macho men doing macho man things. It goes against so much of what we're taught Great Writers are supposed to be and yet Howard's work endures and remains powerful. So they have to discredit him or "put him in his place" either through outright condemnation or backhanded compliments.

  8. Well done, Al. My comments for Mr. Ellison are also pending approval, but are much briefer. I agree it's an interesting premise that Bloch may have been influenced by his own misconceptions about REH, but as Mark Finn noted, Ellison has yet to demonstrate just how much Bloch really knew about REH and Hester's situation at the time he wrote Psycho.

  9. Blackstorme, as Andy said, that might have a lot to do with it. There's also the fact that if a story is repeated often enough, people are more likely to cling to it in the face of new information. Hence how people might reject Blood & Thunder because it contradicts all the stuff people "knew" about REH.

    Thanks Jeff! I'll have a gander over at the site.

  10. Damon Sasser has joined the fray with a mighty smackdown over at Two Gun Raconteur.

  11. Anyone else having trouble getting to the site? We didn't crash it, did we?

  12. Wah. Perhaps Tommy-boy pulled a more extreme version of what Sanford did this morning to his drivelous posting about REH.

    Hope someone got copies of all the replies educating the mook.

    (the 2010 DeCampista Award nominees are, like cockroaches, growing in number)

  13. I just tried there, no problems accessing it.

  14. Pfui! The stench returned, then.

    I'll just save everything in case things go vanishing, like over at the Sanford site.

    (someone's gotta archive this crap)