Tuesday, 8 March 2011

International Women's Day

You're right; women are great actors. But I cant agree with you in your statement that the great women can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Men have sat at the feet of women down the ages and our civilization, bad or good, we owe to the influence of women.
Let us look at the records of the great women.
- Robert E. Howard, Letter to Harold Preece, December 1928

While I find it somewhat preposterous that we still celebrate 50% of the population on a single day, the disparity between men and women is still shockingly high, and many great women continue to be ignored. In previous decades this was a sad fact of life: nowadays, in our allegedly more enlightened age, there's no such excuse.

So, on this very special International Women's Day, the 100th Anniversary of the holiday, I'm going to tip the glass to some of my favourite females, past and present, along with some choice quotes from Robert E. Howard.

John William Godward, In The Days of Sappho

Sappho: doubtless the greatest woman poet who ever lived; certainly one of the greatest of all time. The direct incentive of the lyric age of Greece, the age that for pure beauty, surpasses all others. How shall a pen like mine sing of the beauties of Sappho, of the golden streams which flowed from her pen, of her voice which was fairer than the song of a dark star, of the fragrance of her hair and shimmering loveliness of her body? Has it been proven that she was a Lesbian in the generally accepted sense of the word? Who ever accused her but the early Christian – ignorant monks and monastery swine who were set on breaking all the old golden idols; and Daudet, a libertine, a groveling ape who could see no good in anything; Mure, a drunkard and a blatant braggart whose word I hold of less weight than a feather drifting before a south wind. May the saints preserve Comparetti who was man enough to uphold pure womanhood, and scholar enough to prove what he said. No prude was Sappho but a full blooded woman, passionate and open hearted with a golden song and a soul large enough to enfold the whole world.
- Letter to Harold Preece, December 1928

Sinfully, I cannot find any pictures of Elpinice: this vase depicting a female poet represents her symbolically.

And what of Elpinice, who antedated woman suffrage by two thousand years and who plead so strongly for her brother Cimon that Pericles spared his life and later recalled him for exile? Polynnotus immortalized her for the ages in the fresco of the Stoa Poikile.
- Letter to Harold Preece, December 1928

 Aspasia of Athens

No philosopher among women? You forget the greatest philosopher of all times: Aspasias of Athens. A pupil of Thargelia of Miletus, who was the main stay of the Great King of Persia, and who married a king of Thessaly, Aspasia came to Athens in her early girlhood, and being debarred from Athenian citizenship because of the abominable custom which relegated wives to the position of slaves, and cultured women to the status of harlots, Aspasia gathered about herself a group which for pure culture and artistic ability, has never been equalled in the history of the world.
- Letter to Harold Preece, December 1928

The Nine Muses

And returning to poets among women: Sappho, first of the Terrestial Nine muses, as they were called: Erinna of Telos, Myrtis of Thebes, instructor of Pindar of Thebes, and Corinna, who defeated Pindar five times in contests, and who instructed him in regard to the soul of his work which he was prone to neglect in favor of the style; Telesilla of Argos who was a poet like the rest and also led her tribewomen to victory over the whole Spartan army; Praxilla of Sicyon who is given a place beside Anacreon; Nocsis of Locris, Italy; Anyte of Tegea and Moero of Byzantium.
- Letter to Harold Preece, December 1928

Cynthia Ann Parker

There is an aching sorrow about the tale of Cynthia Ann Parker, a terrible pathos that takes a man by the throat. Flung between red men and white, driven along a trail black with hate and red with blood, to this day the memory of Cynthia Ann Parker lingers and haunts, like a pitiful ghost crying in the night.
 - To H.P. Lovecraft, ca. August 1931

Harold Piffard, Joan of Arc

And what of Joan of Arc...?
- Letter to Harold Preece, December 1928
I feel more of an instinctive interest and loyalty toward individuals rather than nations, races or countries; as for instance, and especially, King Saul, King Arthur, (whether historical or legendary), Joan of Arc, Robert Bruce, Brian Boru and Hugh O’Neill.
 - To H.P. Lovecraft, ca. February 1931
The torture of a naked writhing wretch, utterly helpless – and especially when of the feminine sex amid voluptuous surroundings – seems to excite keen pleasure in some people who have a distaste for whole-sale butchery in the heat and fury of a battlefield. Well – to me the former seems much more abominable than the cutting down of armed men – even the slaughter of prisoners in the madness of fighting-lust. I can read of the Little Big Horn, of Little Turtle’s slaughter of Saint Clair’s army, of the slaughter at Nicopolis and at Mohacz and the Horns of Hattin, unmoved except by feelings of admiration for the courage shown; but I have never been able to read of the burning of Joan of Arc without the most intense feeling of horror and rage...
To H.P. Lovecraft, August 9, 1932

Belle Starr

And Belle Starr, the most famous woman-desperado of all the West – what sagas could be sung of her! Many the times she came into my aunt’s millinery shop in the old Indian Territory, to purchase expensive and exclusive types of apparel fresh from the states. A handsome, quiet speaking, refined woman, my aunt said – she was of aristocratic blood, and natural refinement, for all she’d kill a man as quick as a rattler striking. Its a curious coincidence that two of the Southwest’s most famous outlaws – Sam Bass and Belle Starr – were killed on their birthdays. Sometimes I feel as if the shotgun blast from the brush that mowed down Belle Starr, forecast the doom of the wild, mad, glorious, gory old days of the frontier. She was more than the wicked woman pious people call her – more than merely a feminine outlaw – she was the very symbol of a free, wild, fierce race. Will Rogers, in jest, spoke of erecting a monument to Belle Starr. Oklahoma could do worse. Whatever she was or was not, she symbolized a colorful and virile phase of American evolution.
- To H.P. Lovecraft, August 9, 1932

I'm going to end with a few other Howard quotes: not in relation to famous women, but women in Howard's life, whose prominence in his formative and professional years shaped him as an artist, an author, and a man.  Much has already been said, justifiably, about Novalyne Price, but I'm going to look at some others.

First, in a letter to Lovecraft written around September of 1930, Howard speaks of three women whose tales of terror and the supernatural shook him to his very core.  The first was an old cook, "Aunt Mary" Bohannon:

As regards African-legend sources, I well remember the tales I listened to and shivered at, when a child in the “piney woods” of East Texas, where Red River marks the Arkansaw and Texas boundaries... The one to whom I listened most was the cook, old Aunt Mary Bohannon who was nearly white – about one sixteenth negro, I should say... Aunt Mary told tales of torture and unmistakable sadism that sickens me to this day when I think of them.
... old Aunt Mary had had the misfortune, in her youth, to belong to a man whose wife was a fiend from Hell. The young slave women were fine young animals, and barbarically handsome; her mistress was frenziedly jealous. You understand. Aunt Mary told tales of torture and unmistakable sadism that sickens me to this day when I think of them. Thank God the slaves on my ancestors’ plantations were never so misused. And Aunt Mary told how one day, when the black people were in the fields, a hot wind swept over them and they knew that “ol’ Misses Bohannon” was dead. Returning to the manor house they found that it was so and the slaves danced and shouted with joy. Aunt Mary said that when a good spirit passes, a breath of cool air follows; but when an evil spirit goes by a blast from the open doors of Hell follows it.
She told many tales, one which particularly made my hair rise; it occurred in her youth. A young girl going to the river for water, met, in the dimness of dusk, an old man, long dead, who carried his severed head in one hand. This, said Aunt Mary, occurred on the plantation of her master, and she herself saw the girl come screaming through the dusk, to be whipped for throwing away the water-buckets in her flight.
Another tale she told that I have often met with in negro-lore. The setting, time and circumstances are changed by telling, but the tale remains basically the same. Two or three men – usually negroes – are travelling in a wagon through some isolated district – usually a broad, deserted river-bottom. They come on to the ruins of a once thriving plantation at dusk, and decide to spend the night in the deserted plantation house. This house is always huge, brooding and forbidding, and always, as the men approach the high columned verandah, through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away. The men sleep in the big front-room with its crumbling fire-place, and in the night they are awakened by a jangling of chains, weird noises and groans from upstairs. Sometimes footsteps descend the stairs with no visible cause. Then a terrible apparition appears to the men who flee in terror. This monster, in all the tales I have heard, is invariably a headless giant, naked or clad in shapeless sort of garment, and is sometimes armed with a broad-axe. This motif appears over and over in negro-lore._ I do not know what sort of tales modern darkies tell. For years I have lived in a section where negroes are very rare. Indeed, no colored person is allowed to remain over night in this county.
But through most of the stories I heard in my childhood, the dark, brooding old plantation house loomed as a horrific back-ground and the human or semi-human horror, with its severed head was woven in the fiber of the myths.

Howard also mentions his grandmother, Louisa Elizabeth Henry, who regaled him with tales of his spiritual ancestral homeland, as well as the rich mythology of his birthland:

But no negro ghost-story ever gave me the horrors as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth at her. Her tales showed what a strange legion of folk-lore grew up in the Scotch-Irish settlements of the Southwest, where transplanted Celtic myths and fairy-tales met and mingled with a sub-stratum of slave legends. My grandmother was but one generation removed from south Ireland and she knew by heart all the tales and superstitions of the folks, black or white, about her.
As a child my hair used to stand straight up when she would tell of the wagon that moved down wilderness roads in the dark of the night, with never a horse drawing it – the wagon that was full of severed heads and dismembered limbs; and the yellow horse, the ghastly dream horse that raced up and down the stairs of the grand old plantation house where a wicked woman lay dying; and the ghost-switches that swished against doors when none dared open those doors lest reason be blasted at what was seen. And in many of her tales, also, appeared the old, deserted plantation mansion, with the weeds growing rank about it and the ghostly pigeons flying up from the rails of the verandah.

Most intriguingly, Howard speaks of a black woman by the name of Arabella Davis:

And there was one Arabella Davis, I remember, whom I used to see, when a child, going placidly about town collecting washing – I mean when I was a kid, not Arabella. She was a black philosopher, if there was ever one. Her little grand-daughter tagged after her, everywhere she went, carrying Arabella’s pipe, matches and tobacco with as much pomposity as a courtier ever carried the train of a queen.
Arabella was born in slavery, but her memories were of a later date. She often told of her conversion, when the spirit of the Lord was so strong upon her that she went for ten days and nights without eating or sleeping. She went into a trance, she said, and for days the fiends of Hell pursued her through the black mountains and the red mountains. For four days she hung in the cobwebs on the gates of Hell, and the hounds of Hell bayed at her. Is that not a splendid sweep of imagination? And the strangest part is, it was so true and realistic to her, that she would have been amazed had anyone questioned her veracity.

Three women, two of which had black ancestry, have clearly had a profound effect on Howard's young mind, and the influence on his Southern Gothic tales like "Pigeons from Hell" is clear to see.

In another letter to Lovecraft, written around October 1931, he speaks of another fascinating woman, Mrs Crawford:

I remember an old woman, a Mrs. Crawford, whom I knew as a child, and who was one of the old settlers of the country. A gaunt, somber figure she was behind whose immobile countenance dreamed red memories...
Mrs. Brown was Mrs. Crawford when I knew her. A strange woman, and one whom the countryside looked on as a “medium”; a seer of visions and a communer with the dead. After she married Crawford, he went forth one day to look for his horses, just as her former husband had. Again it was a cold drear day, gloomed with grey clouds. Crawford rode away awhile before sundown and she heard his horse’s hoofs dwindle away on the hard barren ground. The sun sank and the air grew cold and brittle. On the wings of a howling blue blizzard night shut down and Crawford did not come. Mrs. Crawford retired after awhile, and as she lay in the darkness, with the wild wind screaming outside, suddenly a strange feeling came over her which she recognized as the forerunner of a vision. The room filled suddenly with a weird blue light, the walls melted away, distance lost its meaning and she was looking through the hills, the long stretches of mesquite, the swirling blue distances and the night, upon the open reaches of prairie. Over the prairie blew an unearthly wind, and out of the wind came a luminous cloud and out of the cloud a horseman, riding hard. She recognized her husband, face set grimly, rifle in his grasp, and on him a blue army coat such as she had never seen before. He rode in utter silence; she did not hear the thunder of his ride, but beneath his horse’s hoofs that spurned the hard earth, the dead prairie grass bent and the flints spat fire. Whether he rode alone she could not tell, for the luminous cloud closed in before and behind and he rode in the heart of the cloud. Then as a mist fades the vision faded and she was alone in the dark room with the wind screaming about the house and the wolves howling along the gale. Three days later Crawford came home, riding slowly on a weary horse. The blizzard had blown itself out; the cold sunlight warmed the shivering prairies and Crawford wore no coat, as when he had ridden away. He had not found his horses, but he had found the tracks of the raiders who had taken them, and while examining them, a band of settlers had swept past on the trail, shouting for him to follow. And he had followed and in the teeth of the freezing blizzard they had harried the marauders to the very banks of Red River, emptying more than one saddle in that long running fight. She asked about the coat, the blue army coat she had seen in the vision, and he replied with surprize that he had stopped at a settler’s house long enough to borrow the coat, and had returned it as he rode back by, returning from the chase.
Many a time, as a child have I listened to her telling strange tales of old times when white men and red men locked in a last struggle for supremacy. I wandered around her old ranch-house in awe. It was not the memories of Indian forays that made me shiver – it was the strange tales the country folk told – of doors in the old ranch-house that opened and closed without human agency, of an old chair rocking to and fro in the night in an empty room. In this chair Crawford had spent his last days. Men swore that the chair rocked at night, as he had rocked, and his old spittoon clinked regularly, as it had clinked in his life-time when he rocked, chewing tobacco, and from time to time spat. Mrs. Crawford was a true pioneer woman. No higher tribute could be paid her. I liked and admired her, as I admire her memory. But to me as a child, she was endowed with a certain awesomeness, not only as far as I was concerned, but to the country-folk in general.
To H.P. Lovecraft, ca. October 1931

Finally, Howard's mother. Truly, I cannot do better than Leo Grin's tribute to Mrs Howard:

Hester Howard was a woman of uncommon strength and dedication to family, one remembered by many as a laughing and loving woman, a good friend and genial host, courageous in the face of illness and death, a lover of poetry and fine things, a lady in the truest and most noble sense of the word. Some families even named their daughters after her, such was the depth of the admiration of her friends. She is not responsible for the adult despondency and suicide of her son — it’s clear that Robert E. Howard adored his mother, and her fatal illness filled him not with resentment but with an unutterable sadness about the horrors of old age inflicted by a heartless, cruel world. She deserves to be remembered far more charitably than she has been. Until such time as she is, this little blog post and my occasional prayers to her memory will have to do.

When one considers the impact these women undoubtedly had on young Robert E. Howard's mind, this excerpt of the aforementioned Preece letter attains a truly cosmic resonance:

Woman have always been the inspiration of men, and just as there are thousands of unknown great ones among men, there have been countless women whose names have never been blazoned across the stars, but who have inspired men on to glory.

In the case of Robert E. Howard himself, one cannot argue that the likes of Aunt Mary, Mrs Crawford, Arabella Davis, Louisa Elizabeth Henry, and Hester Jane Howard deserve to have their names enscribed on the firmament of literary eternity, through the man to whom they were Terrestrial Muses.


  1. With progressive views like that, not to mention his voluminous lexicon and his penchent for flights of fancy and the liberal use of his imagination, it is little wonder that the citizens of Cross Plains would not know what to make of this "odball" living in their midst.

    How tragic it is that these misconceptions persist to this day. Far from being a mental deviate, Howard would have found a kinship with the people of today, the same people who denounce him as sexist and racist based on what others have done with his creations, without really ever knowing the man himself.

    It is criminal that he is not given credit for how visionary or progressive he actually was.

  2. Indeed, M.D.: I think REH would be able to deal with modern times a lot better than people would give him credit for.

  3. Well, speaking as someone who was always considered an "oddball" throughout my school years (I grew up in a small Canadian town, probably not dissimilar to Cross Plains) I can feel a lot of REH's pain. Today is so wonderfully lovely for blokes like you and I. Everything that I used to be vilified for liking (Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, sci-fi and fantasy in general) is now big business. Fellows who were once lonely nerds are now hip and exciting. The worm has turned. I think Two-Gun would have thrived in this time.