Monday, 18 October 2010

Robert E. Howard: A New Manifesto

(The following is a special message from none other than Mark Finn.  It will be proliferated on various websites as a measure to increase awareness on Howard, Howard scholarship and newcomers to the world of Robert E. Howard.  I encourage all who read this to forward it to anyone and everyone who needs to read it. Click on "But Wait, There's More" for more details on the Manifesto from Mark.)

Why a New Manifesto?
In the past twelve months, I've seen several rounds of speculation from various bloggers lately, two of which were the equivalent of Internet train wreaks that ended rather badly, despite everyone’s avowed intentions. In the interest of using the Internet as an actual research tool, I have written this manifesto on behalf of the fans and interested parties in the life and works of Robert E. Howard, as a guide to the person or persons who are new to Howard studies, or perhaps would like to write an article, essay, or blog post about him. If you’d like to delve deeper into the history and current state of Howard studies, and get some advice for participating in the debate, click on the link at the end of this Manifesto.

A New Robert E. Howard Manifesto
I am a fan of Robert E. Howard, the Texas author who created a multitude of unique characters, wrote original and inventive fiction, defined the genre of epic fantasy as we understand it, and inspired me to become a professional writer. There are tens of thousands of other fans just like myself. As fans of Robert E. Howard and his works, we are interested in reading more about our favorite author. We are interested in sharing and exchanging new ideas about his life and work, and we actively seek out these new ideas online, in print, and elsewhere.

What we do not want to see are semi-uninformed retreads of the same discussions that were in vogue circa 1984. The field of Howard Studies is alive and well, with new discoveries and voices appearing all the time.  Interest in the author is high and remains so. If you have a thought or an opinion, even a controversial or untested one, and want to share it with the world at large, we encourage that you do so.

We expect responsibility and accountability on your part. We are not interested in your grand pronouncement on a subject which has yet to be settled by people who have spent decades studying the issue at hand. We expect you to do your homework. There are a number of websites and literally stacks of new books that likely cover or answer most of your questions regarding Robert E. Howard. To not utilize those sources when doing your research smacks of willful ignorance and will not be tolerated by the fans of Robert E. Howard. 

If you want to write a review about how much you didn’t like Kull: Exile of Atlantis, have at it. Take it apart for any and all textual reasons you choose to invoke. We may not agree because Howard’s work isn’t for everyone, and we understand that. But the minute you start bringing Robert E. Howard’s life story into your Kull review, it will garner a much more careful reading, and if you don’t have your facts straight, or your opinions backed up by same, then we will call you on it.

The online Robert E. Howard fanbase calls itself the “Shield Wall.” Some writers who have been on the business end of the Shield Wall’s attacks have accused us of being bullies and overly-obsessed for the protective stance we take. While it is not our intention to bully anyone, and while we may get a little carried away on occasion, let me be very clear here as to why this is so: Robert E. Howard has not had a voice for 75 years now. For four decades after his death, he had very few advocates who would defend him against the libel and slander of those who stood to profit from his work. He has been misunderstood and misrepresented for years. The Shield Wall’s goal has been to stop in its entirety the kind of character assassination employed by L. Sprague de Camp and others who would adopt his methodology. 

Consider this a challenge to survey the amount of work that has been done in Howard Studies in the last ten years alone and then try to come up with your own take on a topic or angle of discussion that has not been beaten to death. Do not make the mistake that so many others have made; just because Robert E. Howard isn’t considered a “classic” author by the literary establishment that you can beat his literary reputation (or his personal life) like a rented mule and you will not get kicked for your efforts.

We expect you to accord Robert E. Howard the same respect as any other 20th century American author with continued and perennial popularity. No more back handed compliments. No more snide insinuations. No more rampant and irresponsible speculation with no basis of fact or evidence to bolster it. And for God’s Sake, no more “oedipal complex” crap, either. Those theories are thirty years out of date, and we are sick and tired of seeing it. Give us something new, or keep your parochial and backwards thinking to yourself. 

Mark Finn
Author of Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard
And Commander of the Texas Shield Wall

I. A Little History Lesson
Robert E. Howard, perhaps moreso than any other twentieth century genre author, has not fared well in the hands of his critics and biographers. This is all the more damning, considering his most noteworthy creation, Conan the Barbarian, has achieved a place in the echelons of popular culture alongside other fictional characters such as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and The Lone Ranger.

The person who acted as both critic and biographer for over three decades was L. Sprague de Camp, a science fiction writer now best known for his association with the character of Conan. De Camp was one of the first and earliest people to repeat some of the gossip and tall tales that had grown up around Robert E. Howard's life and suicide in Cross Plains. He took gleeful joy in spreading around whatever gossip he'd learned like a twelve-year old girl at recess. This later turned into amateur psychoanalysis and rampant speculation, for de Camp had his own skewed ideas about the lives of writers based, entirely on his own subjective experiences. This speculation turned up in every single essay or introduction that de Camp wrote about Howard and his work.

Eventually, he wrote all of his theories down into a booklet called "The Miscast Barbarian," and note that even the title seems antagonistic. It was. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of people even seriously looking at REH at that time, and only one person actively studying him: Glenn Lord. However, Lord's time was divided between getting other Howard material in print, publishing the Howard Collector (wherein many early discoveries were published), and doing research as he was able to do so.

De Camp’s incessant amateur psychoanalysis led to other people thinking they could do the same. Harry Harrison famously called Conan a crypto-homosexual in his book, "Great Balls of Fire," and implied that Howard was the same for writing as he did. Words like "perfervid" and "maladjusted to the point of psychosis" became attached to the details of Howard’s life.

Critical opposition eventually mounted against de Camp, starting in the late seventies and building into the eighties. To combat the rising tide of negativity towards de Camp’s handling of both Conan and the life of Robert E. Howard, he conducted a new round of research and wrote what was intended to be the final word on the subject: Dark Valley Destiny. It contains 90% of what's in "The Miscast Barbarian," and a whole lot of interviews and even more speculation, written very cleverly to suggest strongly that Howard was, indeed, crazy.

De Camp's tactics became de rigueur for anyone writing and talking about Robert E. Howard. He was a master of the back-handed compliment, i.e. "For a fat girl, you sure don't sweat very much." Despite the appearance of other books and papers by far more knowledgeable people, writing far more even-handedly, de Camp's biography and speculative theories (and the domino effect that it created) permeated the fantasy field for twenty years after Dark Valley Destiny was written.

Starting in the late eighties, members of The Robert E. Howard United Press Association (“REHupa”) and other critics began a systematic attack on de Camp's Ivory Tower, taking it apart brick by brick to show that his rampant speculations were just that: his speculations, with no facts or evidence to back them up. Books of critical essays were published that focused on what Howard wrote, and not how crazy he may have been when he wrote it. Howard's girlfriend wrote a memoir of their time together, meticulously culled from her diaries she kept at the time of their romance. Volumes of collected letters came to light, showing a Robert E. Howard in marked contrast to the image that had been painted of him.

One of the last things to go has been the clinging presence of de Camp's tenure as steward of Howard, most notably his condescending way of writing about the Texas author. Many people who have been fans of Howard since the sixties and seventies (thus growing up reading everything de Camp wrote about Howard) have tried their hand at writing about the man, only to start their book review, essay, or introduction, with some variation on this: "When Robert E. Howard killed himself at the age of 30 because his mother, to whom he was excessively devoted, was in a terminal coma, he left behind a legacy of unmatched adventure in the form of Conan the Barbarian." That's the de Camp style: lead off with the negative comment at all times.

Well, needless to say, de Camp himself is gone, as is most of the work he did (or didn't do) on Howard and Conan. All that's left is the malingering seeds of his methodology: ask a question based on some aspect of Howard's personal life, preferably with a negative slant, and then back that question up as if it were a statement using other source material that is tangentially at best related to the subject at hand. Understandably, the fans, scholars, experts, and other modern appreciators of Howard and his works are hyper-sensitive to such speculations, and sometimes they get a little over-zealous in trying to correct them quickly and decisively. This is partially because we want good, accurate information about Howard in circulation, but it's also because we don’t want bad info or rumors to start back up again. Especially since there is a wealth of better sources, more accurate information, and deeper and more meaningful discussions about his life and works taking place in all kinds of essays, book introductions, and across the blogosphere.

II. The Current State of Howard Studies
Ever since the mid-nineties, when the Internet became a widespread communication tool, there have been Robert E. Howard fans online discussing his life and works. Many of these people were previously discussing Howard in fanzines and Amateur Press Associations for twenty years prior to that. One of the first things everyone did, after posting their Want Lists for completing their collections, was roll up their sleeves and tackle, in an open forum, all of the hot topics in Howard Studies. A lot of new information came to light, along with a host of new ideas and ways of thinking about these old, unanswered questions. While it is safe to say that very few minds were changed, a number of compelling arguments came into being for either side of whatever the current topic of discussion was.

As more fans found these pockets of Howard groups, and as more groups began to spread, these perennial questions and hot topics came up again, and everyone took their places on either side of the argument and dutifully re-hashed them for the newcomers. This happened again, and again, and again. Gradually, people began to set up websites to store some of these more thoughtful discussions. Other people migrated to listservs with searchable archives. Still others created their own websites and posted their own thoughts.

Over time, these archives and discussions became hot linked, so that newcomers would get a few cut-and-pasted addresses to follow whenever someone asked, out loud, and with no rancor, if anyone else has noticed how “fill-in-the-blank Hot Topic” shows up in Howard’s work.

From all of this activity online came the current group of Howardists, many of whom are actively involved in the promotion, production, and preservation of Howard’s life and works in a more positive and less judgmental fashion than has been previously accorded the author. Nearly all of the current Howardists, from academic scholars to enthusiastic amateurs, who are active today, maintain some sort of steady presence online at one or more of the Robert E. Howard websites or message boards.

III. Hot Topics in Howard Studies
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) has long since been a controversial author for a number of reasons. The biggest and most prevalent reason was his suicide at the age of 30. This in and of itself would not, at least from a literary point of view, be so controversial, except that Howard chose to end his life 30 hours before his own mother passed away. The exact sequence of events (and the cause leading up to the act) has been, if nothing else, one of the most unfortunate and misunderstood events in the history of authors who commit suicide. The reasons and the root causes of Howard’s suicide have all been re-examined and several new theories have replaced de Camp’s overly-simplified conclusion.

Another topic that frequently comes up is the amount of racism present in Howard’s work. While it is true that some of Howard’s descriptions and use of language are out of step with modern thinking, the author’s time and place have to be accounted for in any critical assessment of his work. Likewise, Howard’s portrayal of various ethnicities changed from story to story. For every instance of a stereotypical depiction of any non-white character, one can find major characters of color that were, in fact, non-stereotypical or more finely nuanced. Whatever Howard might have felt and thought privately (and these viewpoints changed over time), his fictional conceit of every culture having good and bad people in it make it difficult to assess exactly what his beliefs were. When Robert E. Howard fans first gathered on the Internet, back in the mid-90s, this was one of the first topics that everyone attempted to wrestle to a satisfactory conclusion. No consensus was ever reached, although everyone still holds strong opinions about Howard’s alleged beliefs.

One of the more damning aspects of Howard’s career has been the world wide popularity of Conan the Cimmerian (or “Conan the Barbarian” if you follow mass media). These stories, when written during the early 1930s for Weird Tales magazine, were quite popular with the readers. But, even back then, there were some avid readers who did not like Conan. They felt he was too  bloody, too repetitive, or just too much altogether. Of approximately 300 stories Howard wrote, only 23 of them are Conan stories. That’s it. Not even one tenth of his total fictional output. Also, Conan was a commercial construct, designed to sell to Weird Tales by means of a formula. As such, some of the ideas in the Conan stories seem at odds with material Howard wrote about in his other work, such as his historicals, his humorous cowboy and boxing stories, even his horror stories.  In fact, some of the most controversial stories that have been discussed ad nauseum, are Conan stories that were unpublished at the time of Howard’s death. While it is tempting to read a handful of Conan stories to get a feel for what Robert E. Howard was “about,” doing so creates a distorted picture of the author.

IV. Advice for Newcomers
There is another matter that is worth mentioning, and that is Howard's ability to get under the skin of whoever reads him. Specifically, when we first read Howard, we feel it in the gut. It usually provokes a deep and lasting impression within all of us. This is important, because so many Howard fans will carry those stories around for so long that they become a part of the reader. Fans of Howard’s work feel this connection deeply.

This is not a bad thing, provided that everyone realizes that each one of us feels exactly the same way as you do. The real rub comes out in threads like "How tall was Conan," only to watch the thread devolve into an endless bickering match. Why? Because Howard wrote from the unconscious subjective. He says "massive," and never gives you a comparison. So, your go to mental dictionary for what "massive" might mean—6' 1" or 6' 2" if you’re thinking of his characters in a historical context. If you're thinking about Conan as a video game character, where every leading man is six feet tall, then your Conan may well end up around 6' 6" or something similar.

This effect is multiplied when people start talking about what Howard "meant" when he wrote his stories. His inner motivations for his characters. His life-philosophy vis-à-vis his Hero Kings. It is very easy to start stating things that you have thought through in the privacy of your bedroom and had in mental storage for five or ten years as if they were facts. Most, if not all, Howard fans do the same thing, we are all more or less aware of it.

A number of hot topics in Howard studies have been debated about for years online, and those arguments fill up scores of pages, simply because we all enjoy batting around our ideas. And that's cool, especially when it's done respectfully. But being a fan of Howard in the 21st century may well mean that some of the newcomers have to jettison some of the old, outdated ideas about Howard and his work. It's not a bad thing. The Internet was supposed to be a learning tool, anyway. Some folks have a harder time with letting go of their preconceived notions. This is usually true of older fans who grew up during de Camp's reign who are having trouble shaking free of his indoctrination.

If you are new to Howard Studies, please take a little time to browse the Internet. There are a number of active and thoughtful blogs, websites, and message boards that cover a wide variety of topics and subjects. Look especially at any pinned topics or keywords in blogs, as they contain the most prevalent, most up-to-date, and most accurate info out there regarding who's who and what's what in the REH-verse. If you still have questions, please don't be afraid to ask them. You will find that most Howard fans do, in fact, have human heads and are very friendly and encouraging to newcomers. But, also, please let them know that you are new, and if you have a speculation to make, be sure that you know it's just that: your take on things. There are, of course, a lot of unanswered questions about REH out there--but there are also a lot of sources for answers you seek that you may not know about. That's why so many of the experts, scholars, and appreciators are online and contribute regularly to the blogs, websites, and forums. All that we ask is that you keep an open mind, and provided that everyone in the discussion is respectful (not usually a problem), we'll do the same for you. 

(The above expansion is also from Mark Finn.)


  1. Good post! I've got a copy of "Dark Valley Destiny" (signed by DeCamp and his wife) that I bought quite a few years ago. I didn't know about the mis-characterizations in the book when I originally bought it, but I have yet to read it. The taint associated with it is too great to get me to read it. I'll keep it around as an oddity that collects dust.

  2. Glad to see this. These are things that, unfortunately, still need to be said about many of my favorite authors (REH, HPL, and Eddison, to name a few in the fantasy genre).

  3. Hear, hear, Mark Finn.

    I do hope this spreads around the net in nice fashion.

  4. Much as I like Mark Finn's book. I think if he intends this to be an actual "Manifesto" for the REH revitalization movement.. he will need to make it a lot less confrontational.. or the very people he is trying to reach with it will simply not bother.

    I agree with essentially all of it, but even I found my "Hey, screw you buddy" reflex charging up a few times..

  5. Rex,

    I vascillated on whether or not to make it more or less confrontational. In the end, I opted for a slightly more strident tone, and this was intentional. While it's true that you catch more flies with honey, sometimes nice guys do finish last. Actually, some folks thought that as a manifesto it wasn't aggressive enough. Funny how that works.

  6. It's understandable as some of the goons on the internet who stridently trash REH, both personally and professionally are extremely irksome.. and no doubt tiresome to deal with.

    I also agree that its vastly dependent on where one is sitting as to how aggressive it comes across.

    I'm not really that much of an REH fan, in so much as I am a fan of several of the genres he wrote in.. or founded.. so maybe I don't take some of the stuff as much to heart as others who are more fans of him, for him and his entire body of work.

    I appreciate your responding however, and really do wish you the best of luck in trying to sort out some of the various PR issues that still plague REH.

  7. Good post! I've got a copy of "Dark Valley Destiny" (signed by DeCamp and his wife) that I bought quite a few years ago. I didn't know about the mis-characterizations in the book when I originally bought it, but I have yet to read it.

    Atom, I'd almost suggest that you do read it, if only to see why DVD is held in such ill regard. Imagine a whole book of backhanded compliments.

    Glad to see this. These are things that, unfortunately, still need to be said about many of my favorite authors (REH, HPL, and Eddison, to name a few in the fantasy genre).

    It's true, Scott. JRRT's another one, but he has a lot of defenders too.

    Hear, hear, Mark Finn.

    I do hope this spreads around the net in nice fashion.

    As do I, Taran.

    Much as I like Mark Finn's book. I think if he intends this to be an actual "Manifesto" for the REH revitalization movement.. he will need to make it a lot less confrontational.. or the very people he is trying to reach with it will simply not bother.

    I agree with essentially all of it, but even I found my "Hey, screw you buddy" reflex charging up a few times..

    I can see that point of view, Lagomorph, but frankly, I think confrontation will work too. "Any publicity is good publicity" sort of thing: if people say "dude, this REH fan's really ticked off" then it sticks in the mind.

  8. Well said. Attacks on REH and Conan reek of a geekish envy of certain kinds of masculinity: In what uiverse are dreams of swiving and brawling markers for closet homosexuality?

  9. Why does it have to be envy? Can't it simply be disdain?

    Its like attaching "Phobia" to a word.. why does it have to be that one is afraid of something in order to dislike it?

  10. Well said. Attacks on REH and Conan reek of a geekish envy of certain kinds of masculinity: In what uiverse are dreams of swiving and brawling markers for closet homosexuality?

    I don't think all attacks on REH are the result of envy, zornhau (Hi there, btw) - plenty enough seem to be from simple lack of appreciation or just plain misunderstanding of the source material. It's perfectly fine not to like REH or appreciate his work, but when you're going to sling accusations you'd better bring some cover.

    Incidentally, I find the "homoeroticism" "argument" immensely entertaining, as if the male body in itself is somehow homoerotic. Because REH can talk about buxom women in various states of undress until the cows come home, but apparently talking about his heroes' biceps is supposedly suspicious.

  11. I think this is teriffic! A great manifesto. I only hope it encourages a little bit of pausing to reflect and maybe even research before bloggers shoot off their type. If only that could become true for everything.

    I know I read Dark Valley Destiny years ago but I'm damned if I can remember one thing about it, which I guess is just as well.

  12. Let me start out by saying that I'm a BIG Robert E. Howard fan. I've been reading his stuff for almost 40 years. Over the last 20 years, I've So far spent over $10,000 collecting his works.

    That said, I have got to say that all of this childish fanboy behavior that has been running all over the web for the last several years, is getting kind of old. Defending your hero is one thing, but some of the nasty shit that I've seen lately is largely uncalled for and is getting very old, very fast.

    I know that you don't like what de Canp wrote in his bio of REH. Did he get a lot of it wrong, yes. Did he do it on purpose, no. Hell, at this time, Conan was his cash cow. Why would he want to damage that. Remember also that the field REH literary criticism was in it's infancy. He had far fewer sources to go on then we do today. That's why I agree with most of what was said in the Maggie Van Ostrand blow-up.

    About Dark Valley Destiny, all I can say about is, so what. True, it is a very imperfect bio of REH, but if someone is a big enough fan to want to read a bio, then reading what de Camp wrote will not drive the fan away from REH. In fact it will probably make then hunt for more works about REH. It did to me. I've read Glen Lord, Mark Finn, Robert Weinberg, Don Herron and Darrell Schweitzer among others. What I find very funny is reading all of the new generation of REH scholars defending REH from all of this ill-informed and poorly researched information in the same manner as those they are defending REH from. Ill-informed and poorly researched, back handed and just plain vindictive. Just go over to the REH-e-APA, REHupa, REH: Two Gun Raconteur or the much lamented Cimmerian, and read what has been written about de Camp, and then go read what the people who really know him have to say about him.

    I'm also tired of all of the bitching and moaning about the Lancer editions. Those were the first Conan's I ever read. In fact the first 5 Conan stories I ever read were not by REH. All of the crap I read on the internet about how de Camp's and Carter's stories are so inferior to REH's stories that they will drive new readers away in just not true. I will be the first to agree that their writing is not up to REH's standard, but if you are a 9 to 16 year old boy (who they were aimed at) they will still knock your socks off. I fact they were so bad that I've gone on to own over 30 REH Weird Tales, all 7 Gnome Press books, the 3 Arkham House books + 5 of the 7 other AH books with REH stories in them. All of the Wandering Star books and the Girasol books. And a Lot more. They were so bad that I've purchased every thing that I could get my hands on, including 3 of each of the Lancers.

    I also think that August Derleth is getting a bum rap too.

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  15. All of that aside, then, surely you don't mind if this is posted as an attempt to curb some of the childishness the last few years? I mean, it's not like we started any of these fights.

  16. Mark, I agree with you that REH has not been fairly portrayed by the mainstream, and that it took people like Glen lord, Don Herron and yourself, to show the faithful the truth. And I agree with with the sentiment that DVD needs to be deconstructed, page by page, line by line or even word by word in necessary. REH deserves no less.

    But please tell me that you are not using the school yard excuse that he started it.

    If you want to defend REH, that's great. I don't think he could be in better hands, except when time after time, I see that that defense consists of the same back handedness, misrepresenting, character assassination and outright lies about those you're defending him from.

    You wrote: "We expect you to accord Robert E. Howard the same respect as any other 20th century American author with continued and perennial popularity." While I agree with that statement, I have yet to see it applied to those that disagree with the 'Shield Wall.'

  17. Bobby, I've been, if nothing else, exceedingly kind to the fans of de Camp. One of his biggest public defenders is a friend of mine in REHupa. But my whole book is a point by point refutation of de Camp's assessment of Howard's life and work. I chose not to bash anyone over the head with it, but I started from the premise of taking apart all of the things de Camp wrote in his various introductions to Conan and answering them, either with the correct information, or explaining cultural conceits that de Camp was clearly not aware of, or at least offering up different interpretations to de Camp's statements.

    Bottom line is that I don't care what people say about me or other REH fans. And I really really don't care when someone like Joshi says that Howard's sword and sorcery work is sub-par hack pulp fare. At least I know from where Joshi is throwing those rocks. But if you go back and read Maggie van Ostrand's article from Fandomania, it reads like it was written in 1985. It's junk journalism. And she professed to actually LIKE Howard. That's my only concern.

  18. Bravo, Mark. I applaud what you said AND the way you said it.