Saturday 23 March 2019

The Immortal Memory of Steve Tompkins

Here at TC Central a schism wider than the Hyrkanian steppes has long separated me from site-founder Leo Grin and Silver-Keywielder Brian Murphy. Is John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian Li’ Abner versus the Moonies, as Karl Edward Wagner discerned so many years ago, or the most stirring sword-and-sorcery epic ever filmed? Well now Al Harron, who posts as “Taranaich” at the REH Forum, has graciously given us permission to run El Ingenioso Bàrbaro Rey Konahn de Simaria, an attempt at reconciling the Howard and Milius Conans that far surpasses the L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp CtB novelization. Mr. Harron is clearly the greatest Scotsman since Sean Connery, and Gordon Brown should knight him forthwith:

- Steve Tompkins, “Wheel of Pain, Tree of Woe, Throne of Tinfoil, Or, The Daze of Highly Insulting Adventure”

This, aside from an email to Deuce Richardson enquiring about my wee parody (“my day, she is made!”), is the only personal contact I had with SteveTompkins, at the time editor of the twice World Fantasy Award-nominated fantasy blog The Cimmerian. I can't tell you how thrilled I was: Steve Tompkins – editor of The Cimmerian, as well as The Black Stranger and Other American Tales, contributor to some of the finest critical anthologies on Robert E. Howard's work from The Barbaric Triumph to The Robert E.Howard Companion, whose online 'zine Visions, Gryphons, Nothing, and the Night was no small inspiration for me to get into blogging in the first place – liked something I wrote!

I had been posting feverishly on the Robert E. Howard Forums, conversing with serious Howard critical scholarship and fans who just enjoy good stories for being good stories. From talking about the literary and historical influences of Conan's world, to Howard's own authors & life, all the way to arguing over what Howard would make of his creations' impact on the world today - all discussions were welcome. I looked to The Cimmerian, Two-Gun Raconteur, REHupa, and other sites as “the big leagues,” something that “real” scholars and writers get involved in, not simple fans from Scotland who hadn't so much as contributed to a fanzine yet.

But Steve republishing that daft pastiche gave me that boost of confidence: this guy thinks my writing's good enough to go on The Cimmerian. From then on, I started thinking about writing about Howard more seriously. “Scholar” has all sorts of connotations which, naturally, rankled some among Howard scholarship, so I was constantly battling feelings of imposter syndrome in deigning to debate with the likes of Rusty Burke, Damon Sasser, Rob Roehm, & others. With the help & encouragement of Deuce Richardson, I began writing articles in the hope that, perhaps one day, I'd see my name on the byline of a site like REHupa, or REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, or even The Cimmerian. Less than a month after I made my unofficial debut on the site which would be my home for the three years until its closing, Steve died. My second post on The Cimmerian was a euology to him.

Steve left behind an incredible volume of scholarly explorations, from including essays in Howard collections like Del Rey's Kull: Exile of Atlantis and The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume II: Grim Lands. His essays on The Cimmerian are still available to read, including personal favourites like “The Conscience and the Kisses of a King,” (an exploration of Bran Mak Morn) “What a Mummer Wild, What an Insane Child,” (which compares motifs in the seemingly unrelated The Dark Knight to The Hour of the Dragon) “After Aquilonia and Having Left Lankhmar,” (a look at Sword-and-Sorcery fiction since the 1980s) and the “Something to Do With Deathlessness” and “Derleth Be Not Proud” trilogies. As well as Visions, Gryphons, Nothing, and the Night, several of his other essays are collected in this thread in the Swords of Robert E. Howard Forum, the spiritual successor to the Robert E. Howard Forums.

There are some essays which I always return to. The first I ever read, “The Chants of Old Heroes, Singing in Our Ears” is one of the most concise, compelling, and eloquent treatises on why Howard's original work, free from the editing and censorship of folk who think they know better, is so powerful, and worth preserving. “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers” is perhaps the best piece of scholarship comparing Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien I've ever read, and unlikely to be topped any time soon. While some Tolkienists sneer at the perceived low-brow, low-culture Howard, and some Howardists similarly dismiss Tolkien as overrated or airy-fairy, Steve respected both authors immensely, and treated them as the dual Argonath of 20th Century fantastic fiction. Similarly, while many speculate what new stories Howard may have written had that fateful day in June 1936 gone differently, few offer the convincing & exhaustive extrapolations Steve produced in “Newer Barbarians,” one of the best essays in The Cimmerian print journal. In the end, it's impossible to find a Tompkins essay that I didn't find rewarding, illuminating, or worthwhile. Like the works he so expertly analysed, they're always good to return to, and reward repeat readings.

On this tenth anniversary, I drink to his shade: always present, never obscured even in brightest day or darkest night.