Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard
Austin, Texas: Monkeybrain Books, 2006
When Mark Finn read the initial biography of Robert Ervin Howard (Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard by L. Sprague de Camp), he was enraged by what he found. Thus, his Blood and Thunder, published some 30 years after de Camp’s, was meant as a corrective: an effort to right the apparently numerous wrongs of accumulated preconceptions, distortions, and omissions, which had been perpetuated and propagated to meaningful degree by the earlier biographer—a business-minded biographer who, had also come to control and assiduously exploit the Conan stories and brand for many years. In particular, Finn was vexed by two sins, one of commission and one of omission: de Camp’s fixation with Howard’s alleged craziness, and de Camp’s failure to consider Howard’s environment as an integral element of his personality, worldview, and brand of fiction.
For most of those who know anything at all about Howard, their knowledge is usually limited to his having been the creator of Conan; his being a pulp writer like H. P. Lovecraft, also linked to Weird Tales; his having been into boxing; and his having blown his brains out in his car at the age of 30. Given the brevity of Howard’s life, this seems to cover much of what is relevant. However, what is important for understanding him is everything else, and, if Howard is the centre, Finn accordingly spends as much time on the periphery.
Howard’s father was a medical doctor. He was also a good raconteur, highly regarded within his circle and the wider community. It seems Howard’s mother, Hester, chose Dr. Isaac as her husband because of his profession, expecting to be looked after and the social standing that came with it. Hester was tubercular, and would die in middle age from the disease. Isaac Howard moved his family frequently (no less than nine Texas cowtows and boomtowns in eleven years), so Howard’s early years were unsettled and with few friends. As a student Howard proved much brighter than his coevals, and was a voracious reader, but he detested school, where was forced to go at the speed of the slowest pupil in his class, and where the rigid rules and strictures of schooling at that time were not amenable to him. It has been said that Howard was bullied, but there is no evidence to this effect. He was, nevertheless, regarded as a dreamer and somewhat odd, and this perception by others would follow into adulthood, for the frontier in the wild Texas of the early 1900s placed a strong emphasis on practical matters, and literary types were seen as in need of getting “a real job” (whatever that meant).
After 1917, Howard spent most of his life in Cross Plains, with occasional journeys into Brownwood. By 1925 Cross Plains would become yet another boomtown, due to the discovery of oil. Besides money, and because of it, boomtowns attracted all manner of crooks, bandits, whores, and adventurers, all chasing dollars. Bar-room brawls, gun fights, murders, and drunkenness were everyday occurrences. And as one can easily infer from countless Westerns, the federal government had but a tenuous hold on these volatile, remote, and rickety settlements, so those who lived in them had to live by their wits. Capacity to improvise, to seize opportunity, to be self-sufficient, and to work hard in the pursuit of dreams and opportunities were indispensable for surivival; but so was willingness to do anything, to be ruthless, and resort to violence, since there was no nanny state to afford protection or enforce countless laws and regulations. This is the environment Howard grew up in, and, combined with the recurrence of wealth and industry bringing along with it crooks and degeneracy, it quickly dispelled any illusions he may have had about civilization, progress, and human goodness. Howard thus came to associate civilization with corruption and decline, and barbarism with heroic purity. It also made him realise the importance of being tough, which led him as an adolescent to build his body and get into boxing.
Finn notes that Howard was a storyteller from early on, and selects examples from his letters to friends. He further argues that Howard’s literary roots lie in the American folk tradition of the tall tale. He identifies elements of the tall tale in much of Howard’s fiction. Most importantly, he emphasises the degree to which specifically Texas, and the experience of boomtowns, appear transliterated again and again even in the sword and sorcery tales of Conan the Cimmerian. For example, the snake cult in the Conan tales is a reflection of the snakes in Texas.
Conan is what Howard is now most famous for; and even in his lifetime, it was his most memorable character. However, Conan was neither his only creation nor even his main breadwinner. Besides sword and sorcery, Howard wrote very prolifically in a variety of genres, including humorous Westerns and boxing stories. Though he saw himself as a hack, and a lowly scribbler, he approached his craft with admirable determination and professionalism. If a story was rejected, he resubmitted it elsewhere, until he found a home for it. If a magazine wanted stories with a specific type of character, he created them and produced regularly, writing under various pen names. And he was constantly attempting to break into new markets. His efforts paid off; unlike Lovecraft, who was less productive and lived in ever-increasing poverty, Howard managed a respectable living, with ever-increasing sales. By 1932, Howard was able to fork out $350 (a little under $6,000 in today’s money), in cash, for a used green 1931 Chevrolet Coach (Finn omits make, model, and color). This probably stilled the wagging small-town tongues that had hitherto described him as a freak unacquainted with “proper” work.
But all was not well. As Hester’s condition progressed, she required more care. She was high-strung, put on airs, and even affected an Irish brogue, to highlight her ancestry. Moreover, her marriage was unhappy, and she was demanding and passive aggressive. The tension often caused Dr. Isaac to storm out of the house whistling—a psychotherapeutic measure he adopted to conceal his anger in public. Dr. Isaac was, in addition, often absent, or else he was unable or unwilling to care for his wife, the care of whom then defaulted to her son. Howard was, consequently, under immense pressure, living at home and unable to write for days at a stretch—although he was not resentful: he was and remained very close to his mother, to the point that he often talked about not desiring to survive her.
Howard was also unfortunate in love. Novalyne Price, an aspiring writer and later a school teacher, was the only girlfriend he had in his life. Novalyne was feisty, outspoken, and dynamic. She was also a small, rail-thin woman—less than 100 lbs in weight—who grew even thinner from worry and overwork. She was smitten with Howard, but Howard was much in his own head, and they dated intermittently for two years, much of which time was spent in erudite conversation. Novalyne desired marriage, but at a time when Howard was not ready and too distracted by his situation at home. By the time he finally came around, Novalyne, considering herself in a casual non-exclusive relationship, was already dating his friend. This effectively ended the relationship: they saw each other as friends a few more times, but Howard severed all contact after she left Cross Plains to pursue a graduate degree at Louisiana State University.
It turns out that Novalyne was Howard’s only hope. Despite his success as a writer of pulp fiction, Howard thought he had little to live for. And he said so to Novalyne. Howard was by nature a loner, his disposition morbid, his worldview pessimistic: for him the future would always be worse than the past. The worlds he created in fiction—shouting loudly as he banged away on his Underwood typewriter—were his sole retreat; but, clearly, this was insufficient. Hence, when his mother went into a coma in June 1936, and he was told there was no hope of her ever awaking, Howard entered his car (by then a black 1935 Chevrolet Standard, bought new—a detail not mentioned by Finn), took the gun out of the glove compartment, and shot himself in the brain. Howard’s body lived for eight hours after the suicide.
It later transpired that Howard had planned his own death: during the aftermath, it was discovered that in the preceding weeks he had organised his papers, written a final will and testament, left instructions for his literary agent, and purchased at lot at Greenleaf Cemetery, in nearby Brownwood.
Finn tells us that Dr. Isaac suppressed his son’s will in order to gain control of the literary estate, which Howard had left to a friend. Dr. Isaac collected the money that was owed to his son (Weird Tales was the worst offender, with somewhere between $13,000 and $21,000 outstanding in today’s money) and continued to work with Howard’s literary agent. The rights to Howard’s fiction then changed hands multiple times, until they ended up with Paradox Entertainment, a Swedish company.
Conan the Conqueror was not published until 1950, but its success led to a series of Conan books, which were published by Gnome Press. The editor, by L. Sprague de Camp played an active rôle in popularizing the Conan stories, and, once he achieved control over the stories and brand, instigated in 1966 a twenty-year boom, which saw the publication of paperbacks with celebrated covers by Frank Frazetta, and which transferred Howard’s character into other media, including comic books. The apex—and the beginning of the end—of this boom was John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, with former Mr. Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reprised the role with a second film (Conan the Destroyer), declined a third (reworked as Kull the Conqueror), and is currently training for a new one, The Legend of Conan, set for release next year. De Camp’s legacy is, however, mixed, for he came increasingly to edit Howard’s texts and also instigated the creation of posthumous “collaborations” or pastiches, of variable quality. This led to complaints by fans who desired Howard’s stories to be published as he wrote them. The desire was finally met with a second boom, beginning in the late 1990s. Somewhere in between came the epic/symphonic black/death metal band Bal-Sagoth, whose concept derives from the story “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”
Finn notes de Camp’s insistence in perpetuating his own pre-conceived notion of Howard as mentally unstable, recording that de Camp’s interviews of Howard’s surviving friends and acquaintances were designed to “prove” or “confirm” this a priori determination, at the exclusion of everything else. (In relation to Howard’s suicide, Finn argues that, given the author’s particular worldview and circumstances at that time, he may have felt there was nothing left to do.) Finn—half-jokingly—also deems that, as a Yankee, de Camp was ill-suited to write about a Texan author, which, to Finn, explains much; only a man from Texas is equipped to comprehend Howard’s quintessential Texanness, and produce a book that does him justice!
But Finn’s biography is not perfect. It could have used with more active editing and the formatting is poor; for instance, the lack of a space before and after blockquotes is an eyesore, and the publisher ought to have known better. Also, the inevitable moral anxiety creeps in, and Finn feels the need to talk about—(yawn)—race and racism; to answer the question “was he a racist . . . ?” as if a big pair of frowning eyes were demanding the answer from the sky. (Mercifully, Finn moves on quickly.) Finally, Finn’s biography at times tells the story in general terms, sailing over the kind of exact details that can bring a subject to life. This is not to say that detail is lacking or scarce; we do get, for example, exerpts from correspondence which provide plenty of insight; but the reader is occasionally left desiring specifics. It may be that the information is no longer obtainable, or that it was never recorded, or that Finn wished to avoid unnecessary prolixity getting in the way of what he wanted to achieve with this biography. Yet, for example, it would have been interesting to know (as I found out elsewhere) that, after Howard’s brains were wiped from the windows and surfaces of the black Chevy’s interior, Dr. Isaac continued to drive it like any normal car, and then left it to his nephew.
As I read this book as part of my research for a biography of Jonathan Bowden, it seems pertinent that I discuss Howard in this context. There was certainly enough in Howard’s life with which Jonathan would have been able to identify—besides, that is, what is already obvious from Jonathan’s 2010 talk about Howard and his subsequent reviews of Howard’s work: a professional and very conventional father, who was popular with the community and a good raconteur, much in demand at dinner parties; a close mother, who died of an illness in middle age; his being considered eccentric by most, yet highly regarded within a specialized, less-than-prestigious milieu; and his working within a modern medium while being a proponent of archaic, heroic, and—for liberal sensibilities—“barbaric” values, to name just some. There were, at the same time, significant differences, but, as with Lovecraft, Jonathan was more interested in the fiction than in the author. I also think what Jonathan liked about the United States, or at least his idiosyncratic conception of the country, was the ferocious dark energy that could be found in frontier towns like those of Howard’s time, particularly as mediated by old Westerns (a full third of Jonathan’s extant DVD collection consists of John Wayne films).
Finn’s may not be a definitive biography, and it may have not been intended as such, but it is a valiant effort and does underline the important message, which as of 2006, and at least in relation to Howard, seemed in need of restatement, “You can take the man out of Texas, but you can’t . . .”