Friday, 10 June 2011

The Second Scottish Invasion of Cross Plains: Day 1

Here it is folk's, the first report of the first day at Cross Plains.  I'm just going to jot everything down as I remember it, and hopefully that reminds me of further things for posterity.  I would put pictures up, but I can't get the damned thing to connect to the computer (something like "power input incompatible" or such) and in any case, I might forget things.  So, onward!

10:00 - Adventures in Greenleaf

One of the first people I met coming into Cross Plains yesterday was fellow REHupan and all-round awesome gal Amy Kerr.  In fact, just as I was opening the door to the motel, she opened hers, seemingly on a whim: we immediately recognized each other and were soon enveloped in a big hug as if we were old friends.  Already I felt infinitely more comfortable in Cross Plains than I did last year, and I didn't actually meet Amy then. I had already met Bill "Indy" Cavalier, though, who I saw next, and turned out to be in the room next to me.

At around 10:00 or so, Amy came around and asked if I'd be interested in seeing Howard's grave at Greenleaf.  Seeing as I was eager to get started on something - if I don't get into activities soon after waking up I tend to enter into a sort of torpor and go to sleep - I immediately got my sandals on, donned my fantastic genuine Cowboy Hat, threw on my Hawaiian shirt over my vest and braved the unbearable heat of the day - since it was morning, it was much more bearable than I feared.

Amy and I spent much of the drive up to Greenleaf talking about Howard, the differences between Scotland and America (mostly just repeating stuff I'd mentioned here, which would be a recurring theme today), Novalyne Price, how Twilight is a blight on the good name of literature and the many things it does wrong or rips off or just plain fails at, annoyances with adaptations of the Harry Potter films, Kurosawa and Eisenstein, and the like.  She was great company, laid back and accomodating to my strange Scottish ways.  Like when I winced at one of those traffic lights that bends like an "r" shape over the road and tends to bend up and down, I swore that thing was going to crash into us...

Through the journey we kept trying to find Novalyne's grave, but we never found the right turnoff, so we just made our way to Greenleaf.  There we arrived, and I found myself at the graves of Isaac, Hester and Robert Howard.

Damned curious thing.  Amy offered to give me a moment alone, which I happily took.  I won't tell you what I thought during that particular moment alone, but I'll share my other thoughts from visiting Howard's grave.  I felt that Howard was gone.  He wasn't here anymore.  Not just in a physical sense - after 75 years, his matter has likely joined the earth from whence it ultimately came - but in a spiritual sense.  Sometimes when I visit graves - relatives, or sometimes just as I'm walking along - I get a sense that there's a vestige of the person remaining behind, a remnant of their personality, being - soul?  Sometimes I feel that the whole person is there, lying content in an eternal sleep beneath the earth.  Sometimes I feel they aren't so happy about that.

Howard's grave was empty.  And in a way, that felt good to me - for it meant that Howard was free.  Wherever Howard's soul, spirit, the imprint left behind by elements as yet unknown to science which marks what we call person, there was none left at Greenleaf cemetary.  Cheeringly, I felt the same of Isaac and Hester - there was no-one there anymore.  It was an immense comfort to me, a guy who's a bit of a "kitchen sink" of spiritualism, that whatever happened to the Howard's eternal being, they weren't trapped in a box under the ground.

Amy generously took a picture of me, and I never like smiling at graves out of principle: I had a somewhat sombre look on my face.  Still, I felt that since there were no dead here, I wouldn't have felt uncomfortable smiling.  In the absence of housing any souls or remnants, the Howard gravestone would act as a memorial.  The words on the stone - "They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided" - would normally be dark and unsettling by connotation, but given my spiritual interpretation, the tragedy of their lives was somewhat tempered by the idea that, though they would always be eclipsed by their son, Isaac and Hester would always be remembered too.  I offered to take Amy's picture, but she's had dozens taken.  We departed Greenleaf, and I'm happy to say, from my personal spiritual point of view, we didn't leave the Howards alone behind us.

Circa 13:00 Steak Sandwiches at the 36 West

I had a Steak Sandwich.  It was glorious.

2:30 The Howard House

The Robert E. Howard Museum opened up at 2, but I needed to stay out of the heat for a while, so I waited until a bit later.  Unlike last time, I took a great many photographs - from the bust of Cleopatra Howard bought aged 15, to the tortoise bank now located in the kitchen.  I even took pictures of the wallpaper pattern.  It's all or nothing with me: no or very few pictures, or tons of pictures of everything.

The way the house is built, there's a fortuitous way of navigating so you end up at REH's own room.  First you go left into the kitchen, filled to the brim with rare Howard publications, a sword, a fantastic representation of the Staff of Solomon, one of those cold-cast statues of Kull, a lovely map of the Hyborian Age, and too many other things to recount.

A facsimile of the Staff of Solomon. Since it was behind a Velvet Rope, I couldn't ascertain whether it was hard as iron, nor if I felt confident in banishing Cthulhoid horrors to the Outer Dark.

A very lovely map of the Hyborian Age, donated by Jack Cook of Temple Georgia.

The mysterious tortoise bank, donated not too long ago to the Howard House and believed to be owned by one of the Howards.

A sword: no word on whether it's battle-ready, or purely ceremonial. I'm thinking the latter, personally - though even a ceremonial blade could do some damage!

According to the text, "This dog belonged to Dr Robertson, and was kept in his office in the Cross Plains Drug Store where Robert E. Howard worked for a time. It was given to Alton McCowen by Mary Robertson Ginsley, daughter of Doctor Robertson."

Then right into the dining room, which has a selection of Howard's letters and typescripts on the table for viewing - facsimiles so you can pick them up and read them properly - along with one of the ten or so known remaining copies of A Gent from Bear Creek (which have gone for gangbusters on auction).

A Gent from Bear Creek, one of the rarest pieces of Howardania out there, kept behind a glass box. There's a copy of the dust jacket on the wall behind it.

A letter from Howard. Strange to see his actual handwriting, and damned if I can read it (I'm not very good with cursive).

Continue onto the next door and you find the living room, a cosy and wonderful little place with big chairs, a piano, the bust of Cleopatra, a number of Dr. Howard's books, the family Bible, and more.

From the text: "This bust of Cleopatra was bought by Robert (at the age of 14) in New Orleans. In 1976 the statue was given to the deCamp's by Birdie Martin, a former neighbor of the Howard's. They had it restored. In 1983 the deCamp's graciously returned Cleopatra to her home."

Dr. Howard's bookcase, containing some of his books: various books of the Bible by B.H. Carroll; Hypnotism: Its History, Practice and Theory; The Chalice of Ecstasy; Twenty Five Years in Japan; The Slighted Stranger and Other Poems, Systematic Theology.

The family Bible. The Howards certainly had a great library of spiritual texts.

A rather delightful arrangement of shipshape bookends, with three tomes held fast. The large yellow one is Nicholas Nickleby.

The Howard piano, a Cable-Nelson Upright Grand, along with three music books.

Leaving through the other door takes you back out into the corridor, where we find a little nook outside Hester's room: this is the Project Pride area.

Photographs of the Howard House before and after restoration, as it was found before becoming a museum.

Lots of useful things here: a comments ledger, a map of the house, a donations pot, leaflets.
Take a left, and continue forward into Mrs. Howard's room: her bed, mirror, armoir, as well as the famous trunk, and a window into Robert E. Howard's room.

Hester's mirror, a portrait, a copy of McCall's, and a photograph of her husband.

"Howard's mother, Mrs. Hester Jane Howard, loved flowers. This little brown jar, given to the deCamp's by Birdie Martin, was used for fresh flowers. It was given to Project Pride in 1993."

Hester's bed, where she spent much of her final years.

The window next door, revealing REH's room, and an artistic representation of turn-of-the-century Cross Plains.

The trunk which contained a great deal of undiscovered treasures. It's a hefty, heroic looking container, aged and weathered with much life and endurance. The text:

This trunk which was owned by
Dr. I. M. Howard
was donated to the Howard Museum
Jack and Barbara Baum
Dyke and Terry (Baum) Rogers

Exit back into the corridor, go back down, look left. There, the room where it all began.

A lot of people got chills when they see the room where he conjured all those characters, conceived all those tales, created all those worlds, all on a typewriter in a house in small-town Texas.  I had a rather different experience - I felt a strange sense of comfort.  It felt like the room of a friend, or a relative's.  No doubt immediate thoughts of kinship with Howard might spring to mind as I say that, but it isn't quite as simple: it's a feeling that's hard to describe.  Not chills, though: something stranger.

Then I decided to have a proper look around the corridor.

Afterwards, I took a look around the shop.

After spending some time in the house, I finally met fellow Cimmerian Miguel Martins, as well as Fabrice Tortey.  Miguel seemed to have a better handle of English than Fabrice (or Fabrice was just not overly talkative!) but very softly-spoken.  Oddly enough, his voice was exactly what I thought it would sound like.  French.  But not just French, really French: the sort of voice you hear in pretentious Ferrero Roche adverts, only not butchering the pronunciation.  I'd like to think I sound as Scottish as Miguel sounds French.  I also saw Rusty Burke, Dennis McHaney, Rob Roehm, Jeffrey Shanks, Todd Woods, Paul Sammon, and my Venarium buddy Barbara Barrett, and caught up with Mark Finn outside at the Pavillion. Indy gave me my copy of REHupa, and thankfully my 'zine arrived on time, so it was included.

After chatting with Mark and Amy for a while, I decided the heat was like to suffocate me, so I went back into the air conditioning.  While on my way, Barbara drove up with Jeff, Fabrice & Miguel in the back, asking if I needed a ride up to Humphrey Pete's.  Ah, Humphrey Pete's!  The legendary meet-up that occurs every Thursday before Howard Days!  Well, I said I'll find someone to take me up, hoping Amy would, and I went back for some cool air.  Unfortunately, after only a short while, I found that everyone had already driven off.  I was saddened that I appeared to have missed another event (last year I missed the barbecue at Caddo Peak for reasons too ridiculous to relate here), but I decided it isn't a holiday without some disappointment.

Circa 15:00 The Road to Humphrey Pete's

Luckily, there were some new Howard Days arrivals led by Ed Chaczyk, a member of the Robert E. Howard Foundation. Perhaps, if they had room... and they did! So the road to Brownwood was spent once again talking with Ed and Jim (and Cromdammit I knew I was going to forget someone's name!) about Howard (and Ed has some fascinating ideas, let me tell you that) and adaptations, Jack London and Dumas' influence on Howard, as well as bits and pieces about Texas, Michigan, longhorns and the like. We were tailed by two Howard Days newbies, Don Lee and Kevin (urm... Durmundstrang, let's say), and luckily nobody got lost.

Humphrey Pete's is Texas distilled: the skulls of cattle, alligators with human hands dangling from the corners of their jaws, push-along lawnmowers, and uncountable animal heads mounted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. It was a really grand place.  Myself, Ed, Jim, Don and Kevin all sat at a round table, where the latter two discussed how they drove all the way from Arkansas on a road trip.  We talked Howard, Conan, the differences between Scotland and Texas, Kurosawa and Eisenstein, and so forth while waiting for our food.  I was terribly dull and ordered a Caesar Salad, though I did request Mesquite chicken, so I was at least a *bit* Texan.  I was mostly just intimidated by the sizes of the steaks, and though I'm comfortable enough in my masculinity to order a smaller portion (called "Mrs Pete's portions") I decided after my mighty steak sandwich I should just go for a salad.  It, too, was glorious. During the meal, various folks wandered about and talked: Miguel, Rusty, Jeff and Barbara came around and met the newbies.  T'was not so long ago I was the newbie...

Return to Greenleaf

After our meal, the whole troupe saddled up for Greenleaf.  All the REHupans got in a photo together (which meant me too), and this time I smiled.  Mostly because everyone else was smiling.

Next, we went over to Tevis Clyde Smith's grave.  When Don asked me to tell Kevin all about Smith, I tried my damnedest to remember everything I could think of: he was a poet, he co-wrote "Red Blades of Black Cathay" with Howard (making him the only true collaborator), and I believe he may have coined the very phrase "Conan the Barbarian" - though officially I think Farnsworth Wright still stakes that claim to fame. Discussion soon turned to Scots and the French, Scottish national anthems, poetry and more among the many folk present.

Miguel & myself discussed the Conan movies, what might be at the Conan movie preview tomorrow, rugby and how Sébastien Chabal was the sort of look he invisioned for Conan.   I'm inclined to agree, based on that famous photo with the baby.

This is more or less what I imagine Conan's mother saw moments after his birth, albeit with more blood and dead Vanir.

Circa 20:30 Discussions with Frank Coffman

Someone I didn't get the chance to talk to much last year was Frank Coffman, one of the most academically qualified of Howard scholars, and certainly one of the top heads on Howard's poetry. So it was with luck that I managed to hitch a ride back to the Pavillion with Frank, where we discussed a lot of things: Howard, the Conan film, poetry, the differences between Scotland and Texas (those playing the drinking game at home, put the glass down or you'll have a headache in the morning!), Chesterton, Edgar Rice Burroughs' influences, Solomon Kane as a fair film even if it's a lousy adaptation, the Conan formula, and whatnot. The long drive went like a breeze.

21:30 The Pavillion

After cooling down again, I decided to brave the dark night and saunter up to the Pavillion, to see if I could find anyone I hadn't talked to yet.  There were several people I wanted to meet and converse with that I didn't get the chance to last year: of those, Rob Roehm and Damon Sasser were present.  I swooped in, determined to talk to them.  But before I got a chance, I was intercepted: a young-looking chap called Richard (erm... Bildungsroman) said that he was a fan of Conan Movie Blog and The Blog that Time Forgot! Whee, I never get tired of that thrill meeting someone in person who's enjoyed my stuff.  Richard is a lurker, and if he doesn't mind breaking his Lurker Vow to give me his second name (send me an email if not, at least so I know your name's Richard and not something else entirely!)  Again, we talked Howard, Conan, Kurosawa and Eisenstein (seriously, how many people have I met today talking Kurosawa and Eisenstein?  This is fantastic, I never get this kind of conversation at home)

After chatting with him, I tracked down Rob.  We discussed dry & wet heat, but mostly I apologised for not getting to reviewing The Brownwood Connection.  That had been eating at me, but Rob wasn't worried.  We then talked about the huge size of Texas, how Howard in his little car without air-conditioning or going at 80 mph would've taken far longer, and so on.  I then found Damon, and I felt a bit like I was talking his ear off about my desire to get an essay or possibly even portfolio into Two-Gun Raconteur (which I maintain is the best REH periodical out there now), though we also talked about the upcoming Conan film, good collections, the differences between Scotland and Texas (wahey), and when Rob joined the conversation, what's next for the Robert E. Howard Foundation.  After a quick chat with Dennis, I departed to start this write-up, before I go to bed.

23:00 Downtime

And now I must go to sleep.  Lots to do tomorrow.

Tune in tomorrow for Day 2 of the Scottish Invasion of Cross Plains!


  1. Al, thanks for this moment-by-moment recounting of your trip. I've wanted to go to Howard Days for almost ten years now, but circumstances always dictate otherwise. Next year...!

  2. That's the stuff Al, now we can all feel a part of Howard Days. Thank-you

  3. Good stuff. Thanks for the sharing, especially the gravesite scene. I know what you mean, him not being there, well put. Look forward to hearing more of these Howard Days.

  4. Hey, Al, I'm the "young-looking chap" you ran into at the pavilion Thursday night. Though, at 42, I'm hardly inaccuracy I'll chalk up to the poor lighting at the time. Oh, and the name's Kevin, by the way, which doesn't really sound too much like Richard but, considering how loud it was with all the chatter goin' on (and that the clarity of my speech may have been affected by a little too much beer and whisky), the error is entirely understandable. We ran into each other again Saturday afternoon on Caddo Peak hill so you've got a snapshot of me. It sure was a pleasure meeting you (and everyone else I was fortunate enough to run into). Cheers

  5. Thank you for the mention in your amazing blog Al. My last name by the way is Regier.