Sunday 5 September 2010

Well, this certainly explains his Conan pastiches.

Suddenly I have the overwhelming urge to write a new crossover: Conan vs the Street Sharks...

I haven't read any of Steve Perry's pastiches.  Nearly everyone I've talked to has told me to avoid, avoid, avoid - even those who like the pastiches. They appear to be for Conan completists only.  Still, this was a long time ago, so I assumed that Perry's dalliance with Conan was a relic of the past.  Until I came across this.

I'm unsure if this is the same Steve Perry who brought us such masterpieces as Conan the Fearless, Conan the Defiant, Conan the Indomitable, Conan the Freelance and Conan the Formidable, but if it is, then it's truly illuminating.

In Thong the Barbarian Meets the Cycle Sluts of Saturn, Reaves and I used as many said-bookisms and adverbs as we could shoehorn into our prose: We were making fun of three different pulp writers: Robert E. Howard, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft, all of whom leaned hard into that overblown style of writing. (Out-of-print, and last time I looked, Thong is a collector's item, going for about $250 for the basic hardback, Lord know how much one of the leatherbounds might go for these days.) Observe these sentences, from Thong:

"'He insults us!' One-Eyed Dick ejaculated as he reached for his sword."

"'He does?' Bwuce asked questioningly."

"'The goddess Peristali did not grant me relief," he said constipatedly ..."

They stink - but they are supposed to stink.

All three of the writers we were lampooning had a tendency to florid writing, Howard and Lovecraft more than Smith, and part of the point of the story was to sail the purple seas and try to harpoon as many gags as we could.

Hmm.  How to take this? On the one hand, Howard's stories - even the non-public domain ones - are still in print, while Thong the Barbarian Meets the Cycle Sluts of Saturn - not to mention Perry's own Conan pastiches - languish out of print.  Methinks maybe there's a very good reason for that.  Perry's Conan pastiches are frequently considered to be among the very worst, in the same company as the Harry Turtledoves and Leonard Carpenters, and I've made a point of avoiding them as a result.

Perry specifically says he's making fun of Howard, Doc Smith and Lovecraft.  Not an "affectionate homage," nor a "loving parody" - making fun.  Well, I'm not going to make any judgment on Perry's skills as an author, but seeing as Howard and Lovecraft are collected in the Library of America and Penguin classics, not to mention perennial considered among the best and most influential weird writers even three-quarters of a century after their deaths, while his pastiches are almost universally despised, it's kind of hilarious that the implication is that it is their prose which "stinks."

One wonders if this is exactly what Perry was thinking during his time at Tor.  If he didn't think much of Howard's writing, then how could he possibly do a good pastiche? Heck, was he writing the pastiches with the intent of parodying Howard?  Was he intentionally "breaking the rules" of writing in his godawful Conan pastiches because that's what he perceived Howard to be doing? Was Perry, essentially, "slumming it?"

It sure would explain a lot.

I had a look through his blog and, sure enough, there's more.

Back when I was willing to take on all kinds of writing work because they were offering and I didn't want to let anything pass, I took on a couple of Conan novels. I enjoyed doing them, but after the second, I was done.

Or so I thought.
Then my wife's company was the victim of a hostile takeover by a corporate raider, who broke the company apart and sold off the assets, during which she was let go. She decided to try consulting for a time, and actually did okay at it, but money was tight going in, and when the Conan folks offered more work, I grabbed it, signing up for three more books.
So Perry was done with Conan after two.  He did another three.  After he was done.  Go figure.
 Halfway through the fourth of five, I think, I was having a bit of trouble with the thee-thou-thither and punctilious use of "shall" and "will," of the prose, and in a fit of semi-hysteria, I penned a short story, "Conan Takes a Hike," which poked fun at Howard's creation. 'Twas a story that, for legal reasons, could never see print, but which I read aloud at conventions now and then. Basically, Conan tossed his sword aside, disgusted with all the slaying and gore. He wanted to go off to the country and get into bee-keeping with Sherlock Holmes, maybe finish up his Ph.D at Oxford, but alas, it was not to be ...

There's that "poke fun" again.  Maybe I'm being overly sensitive and arguing semantics, but I'm getting serious "Gilgamesh in the Outback" allusions. Also, "thee-thou-thither"?  "Thee" comes up four times in the Howard Conan stories, "thou" six, and "thither" only comes up three times.  If you're using archaic terms like that so often that you're driven to distraction, then... dude, you're doin' it wrong.

Robert E. Howard, Conan's daddy, was raised, and lived in, small towns in Texas. A mama's boy whose mother had TB and was dying from it most of his life, Howard was thirty when his mother went into a coma from which she was not expected to recover. Depressed, he went out to his car, pulled a borrowed. .380 Colt pistol from the glove box, and shot himself in the head.

Normally I'd rant on about his use of "Mama's boy," and the idea that Howard only got the idea to kill himself when his mother slipped into a coma, but given the scant regard Perry seems to show Conan, how can I possibly expect him to be any more respectful - or accurate - of Howard?

A product of his time and that place, Howard was sexist, racist, and anti-semitic. You can see this in his writing -- there are references to hook-noses and darkies here and there, "swamp niggers," and the like, including in some of the Conan stories.

"Darkies" and "swamp niggers."  Terms used by characters, usually in stories set in a time period where that was the terminology used.  "Swamp niggers" was a term used in "Black Canaan" to describe what is clearly a supernatural menace born of the swamps - by white Texans of the early 20th Century.
Oh, by the way, there is not a single reference to "darkies" or "swamp niggers" in any of the Conan stories.  Not one.  Why?  Because those are unambiguously modern terminologies.  Why would Howard have such obviously then-modern slang in stories set during An Age Undreamed Of? The Shemites are described as having "hook noses" because... that kind of describes their noses.  It's no more inherently racist than "Roman nose,"  a synonym for "hook-nose."

Except when it, you know, breaks.

As for sexist - yeah.  No.  (The amount of times I've had to link to that article, I should bookmark it for easy access...)

There are exceptions, and he seemed to be becoming less bigoted as he aged, but there are plenty of examples of his views, which were considered normal for the times. Ah, the bad old days ...

Such a shame that Perry gives examples of "hook-noses," "darkies" and "swamp niggers," but doesn't seem to bother listing any of those myriad exceptions. Because frankly, I think listing exceptions to the norm would be more worthy of consideration than listing the stuff that marked him as a product of his time.  It almost comes across as an afterthought, even though those exceptions are pretty damned important - some are the stars of their stories, ferchrissakes!

I used to use the term "thew-boy" when I talked about Conan. Fun to see who got the joke and who didn't ...

Let me guess, it's a reference to "mighty thews" - a phrase Howard used only twice (one of those occasions as "mightily-thewed") and to describe not Conan, but one of the villains.  Or is it just "thews" in general - a word that appears a scant 40 times in all the stories, drafts, fragments and synopses?  37 out of some 450,000 words?
Oh, I get the joke, alright.  In all my dealings with Steve Perry's "Conan" pastiches, I'm just going to refer to them as Thew-Boy - because they sure aren't Conan.

To his credit, Perry does come to Howard's defense about the racist elements in the comments:

I think this can be summed up in three words and a date:

North Central Texas, 1906.

I expect that most folks in that region in the 1920's knew little about Harlem and the artistic Renaissance there, and any time you ventured below the Mason-Dixon line in them days, Jim Crow was the norm.

(The laws were based on a song, which predated the Civil War. I can remember singing this vile little ditty when I was a child, but all I can remember of it is the chorus:

"Wheel about, an' turn about, an' do jis so;
Eb'ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.

We learned it in school.

Any white men from that region and time who were writing and weren't racist, sexist, and good ole boys would have exceptions to the rule.

Howard was born a little over forty years after the Confederacy fell. Given that there are places where the South is still fighting and losing that war, that he was brought up a bigot isn't a surprise.

It is hard to transcend that kind of thing when that's all you hear and see everywhere you look.

... Erm, well, the important thing is you tried, Mr Perry.

I'm sure some would criticize my views as being overly sensitive, the thin-skinned protestations of the reactionary fanboy.  I've been accused of it before, and I'd happily concede to it: I'd rather be accused of over-enthusiasm than lazy indifference.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but frankly, I see little in Perry's posts that suggests anything more substantial than lip service, or at least, an appreciation of Howard from a tongue-in-cheek, "it's all silly fun" perspective.  Who knows, maybe it's acerbic self-deprecation: in another post, he calls Cycle Sluts of Saturn "insulting the memories" of Howard, Doc Smith and Lovecraft.  He does at least seem to appreciate Lovecraft, since he named one of his dogs after the man.  At least, I dearly hope it's tongue in cheek.

Still, there's one pearl of wisdom here: the title of his blog is "Old Enough To Know Better."  Got that right.


  1. I've read a lot of the TOR pastiches, but I was never able to finish one of Perry's. He seemed to feel that writing Conan was like writing any other media tie-in fantasy book, like a D&D novel. What little I read had much more in common with Forgotten Realms than Conan.

  2. Oh that explains so so much...

    It explains why Defiant was the best one of his I've read so far.. because it was the "Last" one he wanted to do, and then the rest of them sucked so badly was because he was doing them to make a quick buck.

    This casts a new light on his books, and really makes me glad I bought them all second hand so he didn't get a penny of my money.

    There would probably be a reason for you feeling a kinship between Forgotten Realms and the Tor Conans.. they share some of the same Writers.. even the venerable John Maddox Roberts penned a TSR tome or two.

    Would it be cool if I linked to your post over on my review site?

  3. That's my understanding of it, Charles: too much high fantasy nonsense, not enough Conan.

    Makes sense, Lagomorph. Part of the reason I haven't bought a lot of bad things (like the godawful tv series) is that I don't want to "support" them. Second hand's the way to go for intellectual protest: I could pretend it's a refund!

    By all means, link away!

  4. Cool, thanks.

    I've been slowly watching the TV series, as it is on Netflix's instantcast so I'm not actually paying for it..

    But I dunno if I am desperate enough to buy a second hand copy of it or not.. even if Richard Burton's Head makes a cameo as Crom in the first two episodes..

  5. Three minutes into the pilot, and I think it drops the most devastating anti-Howard revelation I've ever seen or heard in a Conan property. It nearly broke me. Three minutes in. Nothing in anything I've seen since then could shock me.

  6. No, you don't come across as a reactionary fanboy because: a) you have your facts and they are correct. b:) you have admitted up front that you have not read the Steve Perry pastiches and c:) you avoid ad hominem attacks, preferring instead to use Mr. Perry's own prose from his own blog against him.

    I could also ad a D:) you use your own name and don't hide behind an internet name.

    You are a literary gentleman, sir and I applaud you for it.

  7. It certainly does explain a lot.

    As someone who enjoys SOME of the pastiches, Perry's are undoubtedly the worst.
    I can't recall which one I attempted to read-the villain was a hermaphrodite I think, and the underground monsters in some cavernous world weren't even close to anything we know of Howards universe.

    I know this, I will never pick up any book by Perry again.

  8. I still remember at a CoastCon way back when, in his bio in the convention programme he referred to his Conan books as Conan the Tuition, Conan the Medical Bills, and Conan the Back Taxes. What a guy.

    He went around the con bitching about his book, Matadora, not being reprinted because it had a black woman on the cover (wha?)

    I have to say I do like the symmetry here--he's unimpressive in person AND in print!

    (if you must read Perry's books, remember Taranaich's Law--Second hand's the way to go for intellectual protest)

  9. Thanks M.D., though you know, Al Harron might not be my real name after all... *ominous orchestral sting*

    David, all I had to know about Perry's books is that there's a guy with four arms, goblins, a madman doing experiments on live humans, a circus... all in one book. Even if you could justify any of those elements, to have them all in a single adventure is just overkill.

    Tex, doesn't surprise me at all. I'm guess Perry doesn't know about Charles Saunders' Dossouye - a black woman - getting reprinted. Better to assume delusions of persecutions than think maybe there are other reasons your stuff isn't being reprinted.

  10. I liked the guys Indiana Jones book.. but as I said previously.. its possible he simply doesn't hate Dr. Jones.

    but I guess I have got to keep my mouth shut about this any further.. since I don't and won't post under my real name.. wouldn't want to come across as an unhinged fanboy or something..

    As a complete aside.. what would be really truly cool would be an Indiana Jones/Conan Crossover.. not like physically in the same time and place.. but some Hyborean age artifact thats integral to the plots of both characters stories.

  11. and what about the ones by the late Robert Jordan? I have read two or three and I remember it more or less entertaining, in those books appeared a red haired bandit woman and a superblonde called Sularia...
    it wasn't much better than the ones wrutten by Steve Perry...?

  12. sorry written...

  13. I've yet to read any of Robert Jordan's Conan books Francisco, but I'm looking forward to it. It just means being bored through the rest of Outcast by Carpenter first.. and I'm procrastinating instead of just getting on with it.

  14. To me, the Jordan's weren't bad but they sure weren't good. (were talking pastiches here)

    They irritated me because I've had friends who read them and thought ="Well Jordan is such a great writer-see Wheel of Time-that I don't need to read REH because Jordan's Conan's were just so-so."

    And I try to tell them "NO! Jordan's aren't even close to being as good as Howard."

    I have a hard time not thinking it was just a paycheck for Jordan, the writing is competent but there is no heart there.

  15. This explains a lot! Thanks for the post. It's strange that so many people out there are trying to besmirch R.E.H.'s name and legacy. I used to think it was paranoia, but I don't anymore.

    R.E.H.'s work has been printed and re-printed for decades. People know who Robert E. Howard is. When someone says "Have you read Steve Perry?" you just get "Wasn't he the singer for Journey?"

    May he forever be relegated to the bargain bins of literary history.

  16. David J West has given the key with Robert Jordan, his prose is correct but formulaic...
    by the way I too think first in the singer of Journey when I heard or read Steve Perry...

  17. Lagomorph, I think Indy/Conan is an awesome idea, especially the dual timeline mystery.

    Amazingly, Howard provided an awesome macguffin to allow for just about any crossover - the Red Stone of the Picts. That's my name for the jewel Gonar uses to transport Kull across time and space to help Bran fight the Romans. Who's to say Conan didn't come in contact with it at some point in his travels, linking him to the jewel's power? Just have Indy come in contact with a mysterious bearded old man... Conan vs Nazis!

    David, that's infuriating. How does it even compute that Jordan's Conan stories were "so-so," but because Jordan's a great writer, REH's stories were... also so-so/inferior? What?

    Atom Kid, I blame this all on Dark Valley Destiny and De Camp: the more often a misconception is repeated, the more likely someone's going to believe it's true. Since the old "Racist, Sexist, Fattish, Oedipal, Crazy Mama's Boy" story has been repeated constantly over the past few decades, it's just going to be hard to erase that. That's why I talk up Blood & Thunder every chance I get.

    I haven't read Jordan's Conans myself, and only a bit of "Wheel of Time." I wasn't that impressed with the latter, to be frank.