Saturday 30 May 2009

A Scholar for the Ages

(Originally published on The Cimmerian, 30th May 2009)

Although I made my official Cimmerian debut last week, this is not the first time the name Al Harron has appeared on this site. A little yarn by the name of El Ingenioso Bàrbaro Rey Konahn de Simaria was unleashed on the unsuspecting website, causing a bit of a ruckus in its shameless parodying of Milius’ film. This story means immeasurably more to me now than it did when it was written, since it was the basis of a connection between myself and the late Steve Tompkins. Even at the time, the playful, tongue-in-cheek praise he espoused for my little tale was an incredible source of confidence, and knowing that this is the last communication between the two of us until the Valkyries come for me, I wish to share my own thoughts on a man whose brilliance has illuminated so much.

As a latecomer to Robert E. Howard studies, I have been fortunate to have a huge catalog of past essays to discover. Going through tomes of scholarly criticism such as The Dark Barbarian, The Barbaric Triumph, The Hyborian Heresies and others, I was enthused by the sheer range of Howard scholars, how their views, backgrounds and personal history could all be so different, yet find a unifying quality in a writer from Texas. Though I found every writer fascinating, Steve Tompkins in particular intrigued me. Though half a world apart and twice my age, I believe that had circumstances been different, I would have met him, we would have talked and laughed and disagreed violently, but always coming away with a new view, discovery or appreciation of the subject discussed. I have no doubt in some multiverse, Tompkins is yet on Midgard, and an alternate version of me would have a chance to talk to him in person, and thank him for what he has done for Howard studies, Howard fans, and myself.

Since reading my first Tompkins essay, “The Chants of Old Heroes, Singing in Our Ears,” I knew he was someone special even in the field of Howard studies. I went out of my way to find anything he wrote, scouring the internet for more. Be it in celebrated, Cimmerian Award-winning pieces like “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers,” rousing rallies like “Pan versus Peter Pan,” or sly homages such as “Night Falls on Whoheim,” Steve Tompkins never failed to enthrall, and his works remain a testament to his incredible mind.

Perhaps one of my favourite Tompkins pieces is “What A Mummer Wild, What An Insane Child,” a surprising discussion on the similarities The Dark Knight shares with Howard’s fiction. This, I believe, encapsulates Tompkins at his best: he convincingly explores how far-reaching and universal Howard’s themes are, beyond the mere blood-and-thunder boy’s fantasy many a critic accuses him of. The subcutaneous truths of barbarism’s war against civilization in society and the individual, humanity’s defiance against cosmic indifference, and the battle of hate and death are so strong that they can be seen in all manner of films that one would not normally associate with Howard. Above all others, Tompkins showed me that Howard is relevant, his themes are relevant, his words are relevant: they can be felt in mythology, the ancient sagas, in legend, in modern fiction, and even in modern blockbusters. For inspiring that realization to me through his work, I will forever remain in his debt.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Nameless Tales: Labeling Howard’s Untitled Fiction

(Originally published on The Cimmerian website, 23rd May 2009)

I think an introduction is in order: my full name is Alexander James Harron. Though a relative newcomer in the vast field of Howard studies at 25 years of age, few authors have galvanized my imagination quite as much as the Man from Cross Plains.

As a young boy, I devoured adventure fiction: Burroughs, Haggard, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Dumas, Verne and Wells were my inspiration, the lost worlds and grand struggles of history my tonic. I also read Almuric during this time, then unaware that the author of one of my favourite books wrote anything else. Soon I would discover Tolkien, Moorcock and Le Guin, but finding other such fantasy fiction lacking I almost gave up on the genre entirely, until I picked up a copy of Gollancz’ Fantasy Masterworks collection of the original Howard Conan tales. Through Conan I discovered the vast field of Howard’s writings, and it is by way of REH that I found the other great writers of the Weird Tales era: Smith, Merritt, Moore, Brackett and others.

So what can this upstart from Scotland offer to the study of a dust bowl period Texan author? Well, my exposure to Howard has been relatively bereft of pastiche material: I neither watched the films, nor read the Lancers and comics until after I had the fortune to read the Del Reys. Arguably my first experience of Conan was the recent animated series Conan the Adventurer, though considering Robert E. Howard did not receive so much as a credit (nor did he deserve the shame) I would confidently call The Conan Chronicles my first “true” Conan experience. Whether this shaping results in new insights or just the reanimation of dead horses to flog anew remains to be seen. So let’s jump right in.