This year my wife joined me on my annual trip to Cross Plains, TX for the Robert E. Howard Days. It is often confused as being called the Barbarian Days. I’ll explain. The local community holds a “Barbarian Festival” in conjunction with the Howard Days in obvious reference to Robert’s famous pulp character Conan with Marvel Comics’ and Hollywood’s more popular tagline “the Barbarian.” This is an important note, which will come back up in discussion of the second day’s panels. The point is that the Howard Days is organized by members of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association (REHUPA), and Project Pride, the Cross Plains organization who manages and preserves the Robert E. Howard House and Museum, with participation by the Robert E. Howard Foundation and Skelos Press. This is more of a scholarly gathering. At any other time of the year, someone randomly driving through the town would need to call or schedule for a docent to meet them and open the house for a tour, but at this two and a half day event, fans, podcasters, scholars, and authors descend upon the town with a population of 986, the most prominent marker: the Dairy Queen at the town’s intersection. The Barbarian Festival Parade down Main Street occurs Thursday night as a community kick-off of the official Howard Days. It does not see fans walking around in loin clothes with plastic or very real swords, given Texas law, but does see the community meeting for a fish fry, then the downtown parade. Often, early-arriving travelers will meet at the pavilion next to the Howard house for drinks and welcoming.
The Drive and the House
My wife and I drove from our home in Lubbock to our lodging in Brownwood (normally a three and a half hour drive) after work on Thursday, stopping in Abilene for dinner, when one of the darkest thunderstorms I have seen in many years began to form. To illustrate, in the pitch of country roads off highway 84–we were only just keeping out of its reach–the black of the storm was so defined to the sides of us, I could see where it ended and standard night skies began. We were too late to meet with attendees in Cross Plains due to timing and the storm. Still, we drove the easy 34 mile trek from Brownwood to Cross Plains the next morning. We arrived at 9:05 or so, just missing coffee and donuts at the pavilion from 8:00-9:00, though coffee remained on the burners with a handful of donuts left for the taking. A donation jar stays out for contribution to Project Pride, which helps with the event and year-long needs of the museum. We were one of the first couples that morning to get into the house and be given a tour by volunteer docents, whose contribution and time cannot be understated. For some, it is their first time helping with the event. They are as excited to learn from the scholars as they are to share what they know of the environment. We got our first words from just inside the front door, where it was explained that the year commemorating the 80th anniversary of Howard’s passing in 2016 found informed fans asking to stand in the main hallway. Following his suicide at 30 years old, this is where Howard’s limp body was brought in and laid on a cot his father kept there. True fans knew that. Looking at it, the hallway seems too narrow for a cot now. This is because a closet in that space has been modified to hold an air conditioner, an admittedly much needed amenity in any year of Texas heat. That may need to be fact-checked, but it’s close the right idea. After that, we were led to the living quarters/room, the dining room, the kitchen, back into the hallways leading to Howard’s room with typewriter, and to the back, where they have created a gift shop.
The gift shop would be dangerous to new-comers and fans alike with tee-shirts custom made for the museum and available no where else. The Del Rey editions are available as well as books published locally and by the Foundation to support the museum, including fiction and non-fiction based on Robert, his family, and their environs. That does not even mention the exclusive board games and figurines, which can appear jarring in the historic home, where each character was given life on an Underwood no. 5 typewriter only feet away. It might be important to keep in mind that cash or checks are needed here. They do not have the means for credit cards, but then these purchasing opportunities do not end there as one is then guided out the back door of the house, leading to a new attraction, the archaeological dig which revealed the Howard family cellar just this year. I’m including links below which speak to the dig and the house. Beyond the dig, which leads you back to the pavilion, The Robert E. Howard Foundation offered their publications under tent. Their publications are high quality hardbacks, which come at a premium price. This year, they offered for the first time their latest publication Pictures in the Fire: Remaining Weird Tales and Esoterica. Beside the dug-up cellar was a table for Skelos Press, run by Howard scholar and archaeologist, Jeffrey Shanks. They were selling back issues of Skelos Magazine and for the first time in English Patrice Louinet’s The Robert E. Howard Guide. Patrice was on-site for autographs. I should absolutely mention here that this year a table was set up with three free books for attendees–in a limited run of 200 The Robert E. Howard Bar Guide, the Index to One Who Walked Alone and Day of the Stranger by Novalyne Price Ellis, also in limited number, and A Robert E. Howard Sampler.
Archaeological Dig of the Howard Cellar
Day 1: Panel 1
This all lead to the day’s panels, which were held at the Methodist Church at 11:00. The first panel of the day was titled “From Fan to Pro” and was comprised of author and Howard biographer Mark Finn, author and literature professor Jason Carney, as well as authors Scott Cupp, Dave Hardy, and James Reasoner. Finn’s first prompt was to ask about approaches to fiction for how “nutty” an author of fantasy or of weird fiction might go. Scott Cupp, a close friend of Joe R. Lansdale, explained that for him Lansdale’s work is his model, and what that meant was that there are no boundaries. Reasoner agreed that “If you’re going over the top, go way over.” Carney explained that he looks at Howard’s work from a realist perspective, noting American naturalism in many of Howard’s stories, including “Tower of the Elephant.” Paraphrased–as much of this will be– what he conveyed was that “When he [Howard] violates the natural principle, it’s after he establishes the realism.” Finn noted the story “Wild Water” as reading like Steinbeck at his most populist. As an attendee, I have to note myself that one of that charming characteristics of these panels is the seriousness of the discussion punctuated by very real geek laughter. Reasoner noted a Dashiell Hammett connection to the writing. Leaping off of that connection, Hardy admitted to a “gritty world where the protagonist has a defined sense of duty.” Carney stated that “Howard would rather split the judge’s skull than betray a friend in court.”
Finn’s next prompt asked for examples of anyone getting it wrong, meaning other authors attempting the style of Howard–“… style of Howard, but really anything but.” This lead Carney to point out Hollywood’s “stupid barbarian trope,” a point that prompted Reasoner to explain a point. “In the 70’s, many of these authors were producing a western one month, before a Howard story the next. It just meant a paycheck.” Those hurried attempts lead to much of the poorly executed stories. This idea produced a question in my own mind, which I brought up and was guided by Mark Finn to bring back up at the third panel of the second day. That question was “Post-Game of Thrones, is there an executive and audience mindset that would allow for the Amazon Conan series to be written beyond the stupid barbarian trope?” Hardy pressed the notion of Howard’s very “tight writing.” He said that to dissect Howard’s stories is to see how he introduces a character, etcetera. There was a method and practiced craft there. The last prompt asked the panel for advice to transition from fiction to writing non-fiction essays on Howard’s works. Carney: “Focus on what the artist is doing to make Conan real–words, literary criticism, style, psychology, etcetera. Look to other literature for comparisons.You have to look at more than just Howard’s works alone.” This ended the panel, opening up to the hot dog lunch at the pavilion. My wife and I had a pleasant lunch at Jean’s Feed Barn, a very classic roadside cafe boasting a smorgasbord of fried American and Mexican dishes. The pie didn’t look bad either.
Day 1: Panel 2:
The second panel of the day, which began at 1:30 was titled “The ‘Clubs’ of REH.” Participating were Howard Day founders Rusty Burke and Bill Cavalier alongside REHUPA member Lee Breakiron. The first discussed was the HUNTO or Junto fanzine. This was a chain mail fan group. A list was composed of members. The first on the list started the write-up, it was mailed to the next member on the list and so on until it had circulated back around. There was a magazine named “Right Hook,” which was all about boxing. Fandom had just truly begun with these early fanzines. The 1950’s had the Hyborean League. In 1972, Jim Marion started REHUPA. The Howard Days formed a kind of club that began in 1986. 2006 saw the formation of the REH Foundation, which had as its charge to see all of Howard’s writing beyond the corrected Del Rey editions in print, a goal which will be accomplished in the coming year. REHUPA is a restricted and exclusive club of only 30 members, never to exceed that number. Their mailings are restricted to that same group count. Much of the rest of the panel focused on that group’s effort to some consternation of some attendees who wondered how they might ever see those mailings for research. It is my personal belief that that discussion will play out satisfactorily in the near future. As a librarian and archivist of Southwest materials myself, I must admit to watching that conversation closely.
Closing Day 1:
My wife and I took a break in the day after that particular panel. I apologize for not being able to report on the next panel “The Third Annual Glen Lord Symposium.” As my wife is a pescatarian, I also did not register us for the annual chicken fried steak dinner, which was served for the Robert E. Howard Celebration Banquet and Silent Auction. We did travel back to Cross Plains to see the end of Bill Cavalier’s keynote speech and help put away tables and chairs, a combined effort that saw the basketball court of tables and chairs cleaned up within six to ten minutes. As for the silent auction, it was an impressive, must have been, eight to ten table spread of phenomenal donations from Howard collectors, where I know many got bargains. I refrained after my $82 expenditure earlier in the day. After the money was collected from the silent auction, those willing to stay awake moved back to the pavilion to drink beer and catch up on the day’s chat. At our table, we were joined by On an Underwood no. 5 founder and editor Todd Vick and his wife, author Scott C. Cupp, Patrice Louinet, and Lovercraft scholar Bobby Derie. If you attend this event, this moment in the day, while necessitating some bug repellent, is not to be missed. Across from our table, we noticed a crew of three which opted for red wine in Cross Plains coffee mugs instead of beer. We’d learn their identities at the next day’s panels.
Day 2: Panel 1:
The second day started with the panel “Happy 90th Birthday, Solomon Kane!” A stunning cake was presented at the Pavilion afterward, though I missed that detail, meaning also a slice of said cake. The panelists included Bobby Derie, Patrice Louinet, Dierk Gunther, and Karen Kohoutek. The following is all certainly paraphrased.
Louinet: The editor on Solomon Kane read the story and ended up saying “You cannot start a story in France and end up in Africa.” It gets published elsewhere and ends up in the hands of none other that Tennessee Williams as a fun fact.
Derie: Solomon Kane came out at a time when Weird Tales wasn’t really publishing serialized characters, but Solomon Kane was a hit. Howard figured out a lot of what he would end up doing for his other serialized characters in the stories of Solomon Kane. The SK tales included a doppelganger, an evil twin, Le Loup.
Gunther: Howard was the king of one-liners that hooked you: “Men shall die for this.”
Derie: “Blue Flame of Vengence.” Doesn’t have formal knife fighting, rappiers vs. axes, etceetera. [At this point. Bobby begins demonstrating Howard’s ability to describe, to illustrate with his words fighting techniques he had no training in but that actually work.]
Karin: In the case of the atrocities–rape or murder–he is avenging, he is not connected to those incidents personally. He simply appears as a kind of avenging spirit.
Louinet: “Red Shadow” is like a fairy tale. There is no way to establish a timeline.
Derie: Lovecraft wrote about Howard’s writing craft more and more in letters after his death.
Louinet: Winged characters mentioned in some of the stories are inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs novels.
Derie: Of course in race descriptions in the African portions, there are stereotypes from Howard’s era, but Solomon Kane is color blind, justice-wise. Still, colonial fictive tropes remain there. It’s different from Allan Quatermain stories.
Karin: The stories she really likes are the African tales. She points out some quotes I can’t identify: “Foot falls within,” “Staff against inhuman kind forever.” His cultural lens does see certain misunderstood African cultures as demonic.
Derie: Doctor Strange has his tools: Eye of Agamotto, etcetera, but Solomoon Kane gets his staff in one story. It remains there in the next. So, he gathers tools from one short story to another, which was fairly unusual.
Louinet: Solomon Kane is not born; he is an apparition.
Gunther: Is Solomon Kane Biblical?
Derie: Solomon Kane wasn’t developed like other characters. Howard gave him a background poem instead. He comes on the scene fully formed. His mysterious background is what makes him interesting.
Jeff Shanks: His sanity is irrational. Is Solomon Kane the Biblical Cain? Howard may not have meant it, but it’s allegorically a good idea. There is certainly some credence to it with the Old Testament vengeance.
Louinet: There are zombies in SK stories, but they were called vampires because zombies as a term wasn’t not popularly established until William B. Seabrook’s “The Magic Island” story in 1929.
Question: What are some portrayals Solomon Kane influenced? The Shadow? Batman?
Derie: The Van Helsing movie. There are some connections in Kull stories. A ring in “Red Right Hand,” the ring of Thoth Amon in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” though it was a different metal. Howard played to his audience, the readers who followed him in Weird Tales, with little Easter eggs. But he was after Tarzan and before The Shadow.
Mark Finn: “Red Shadows” was the birth of sword and sorcery–“Guys with swords fighting weird things.” Zorro is around but not fighting weird things. It was a market issue. Zorro was straight adventure.
Murmurs in the audience included: the Scarlet Pimpernel, Sherlock Holmes, and Alexander Dumas as well as John Carter–planetary romancebut a colonial tale in a fantastic setting.
Day 2: Panel 2:
The next two panels truly complimented each other. This first in the two was titled “The Games of REH.” The panelists included role player Jason Carney, Cabinet Entertainment CEO Fred Malmberg, archaeologist and Howard scholar Jeff Shanks, and Bill Cavalier, who has been playing Dungeons and Dragons since 1978.
Cavalier: Gary, D’n’D creator, readily admitted Howard was a big influence on his game.
I can’t place this next story–it might still be Bill, but the story was that this person had read six Howard novels in between watching Godzilla films back in the day. What it included: “Killing critters and stealing treasure.” And that was the Howard influence that found its way into the gaming. There was Hyborean material taken from the Lancer editions that were made into a supplement for D’n’D.
At this point, Carney began a slide show.
The timeline can be seen in the photograph. Pictured center is Fred Malmberg who explained: “We wanted to get the world out there, and video games are probably the best way to do it without Hollywood executives.”
World of Warcraft came out and completely halted a Norwegian game. Bill Cavalier praised the Mongoose RPG. A shout-out was made for the Age of Conan: Hyborean Adventures original soundtrack as the dominant soundtrack to play to your Howard interests.
Shanks: Robert E. Howard’s Conan is a brand that works exactly like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It should be a stamp of authenticity.
Conan: Exiles? The Norwegians did this 15 years ago.
Day 2: Panel 3:
This idea behind this panel, “What’s Up with REH?,” was to get a glimpse into where Howard material will be released in the foreseeable future. Speaking on this one was: Fred Malmberg, Patrice Louinet, and Paul Herman and Bill Cavalier for the Robert E. Howard Foundation.
Robert E. Howard Foundation: Reiterated the release of its latest title Pictures in the Fire: Remaining Weird Tales and Esoterica, and announced that its mission to publish every word of Howard’s will be accomplished with its up-coming autobiographical collection within the year. At their last board meeting, they agreed it’s time to begin working on their website for a better one-stop-shop experience for all things Howard (next 12 months).
Patrice Louinet: He reiterated the release of his guide book The Robert E. Howard Guide Book. It answers the questions he’s most tired of answering. It’s run of 2,500 copies sold out in France. He made the American version with Jeff Shanks’s Skelos Press. It’s a beginner’s guide. He showed off two new Conan graphic novels from France. The back pages of panels send readers back to the source stories. He wants people to begin to distinguish between Conan the Barbarian, a title never written by Howard, and Conan the Cimmerian.
Cabinet Entertainment: Fred Malmberg: The comic books anniversary from the 1970’s is upon us. Cabinet Entertainment is working with Marvel for an announcement that as of this writing will be tomorrow, June 16th. They will announce a massive launch of three Conan titles that will start in January. They have expressed that they feel like they had dropped the ball with that property. A new book imprint will start for Howard’s books with the help of Laurie Guest Bloom(?). With Mark Wheeler as a partner, Cabinet Entertainment is moving on from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film that had been planned as the Unforgiven of Conan films. Since it’s conception until now, new digital offerings have come to the forefront. There are fantasies and dystopias written for mature audiences. They don’t require backgrounds and can be made for television. With raised money, they have become their own studio and are working with Ryan Condal for the Amazon Studios Conan series. Fred feels Ryan’s pitch was perfect and that each episode is coming from Howard’s stories. Miguel Sapochnik, who directed two of Game of Thrones‘ most acclaimed episodes, is on to direct. They have a co-studio in Endeavor Content. They have licensed with Amazon with full confidence of its production this year.
Still, we have known most of that news. The following was exclusive to the Howard Days. Sony Pictures is working on an El Borak series penned by Evan Daugherty who has credits on Tomb Raider and the most recent Snow White and Huntsman films. He has written a pilot, and they are looking for a director.
They are also close to announcing Dark Agnes with Dynamic Television. Michael J. Bassett may have some involvement. He worked on the Solomon Kane movie and hopes to come to the Howard Days soon.
They have recently gotten the rights back to Solomon Kane.
They are developing a Pigeons from Hell feature film that they believe has a future after the success of Get Out this past year. They are looking for a director.
Now, here is the part we need to whisper. There is only so much space in Cross Plains after all. Ryan Condal will be at the Robert E. Howard Days next year. He didn’t come this year because he can’t currently talk about the series. Also, some of the Marvel crew is coming next year. Sara Frazetta is coming and said hello to this year’s attendees.
Q: In the #MeToo environment of today, how can Howard’s works be made correctly?
Fred: (Major paraphrasing) They are being careful and are very aware of Howard as a white male writing in the 1930’s, but it’s not as hard to adapt as one might think. Howard wrote very powerful women characters. He didn’t see gender when he started working with a character. They were just driven. Some of those characters came later in his career; they are simply moving the timeline up to include those powerful characters. They are also aware that Amazon wants a more diverse audience than only white males of a certain age. They like the work of their collaborating producer who has worked on Fargo and A Handmaid’s Tale that look at femininity and masculinity as well.
Q: Any possibility for a Breckinridge Elkins property?
Fred: Yes, the possibilities are endless.
Q: Would you consider re-titling Pigeons from Hell to attract audiences?
Fred: “I don’t think so. Maybe Robert E. Howard’s Pigeons from Hell.” It has an act 1, an act 2, an act 3. The setting has to be the same, the time period, all of it. The ending could maybe use some changes. They are adamant about wanting a director from Texas.
Q: Why 3 Marvel titles in today’s market? Is that setting it up for failure?
Fred: The top talent interest in the project was simply too high. They needed three teams to accommodate the interest from talent.
The Foundation: They are working on new editions of the collected letters of Robert E. Howard, could be 3-4 volumes, was initially 3. Bobby Derie’s index is getting incorporated. Likely next near.