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Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art Of Robert E. Howard


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#1 Mark Finn

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Posted 27 October 2006 - 11:37 PM

From Chapter 10: Lovecraft

At the same time Robert was writing his rollicking prize-fighting stories, he was approached by Farnsworth Wright to contribute to a companion title for Weird Tales. The new magazine, Oriental Stories, would focus on locales in Asia and the Middle East. In particular, Wright wanted ?...historical tales ? tales of the Crusades, of Genghis Khan, of Tamerlane, and the wars between Islam and Hindooism.? This was right up Robert?s alley. By the end of the month, Robert had placed ?The Voice of El-Lil,? a modern weird menace tale of ancient Sumeria, in the premiere issue.

Thereafter, whenever Robert wasn?t waxing fistic for the fight fans, he was writing deadly earnest historical fiction. While he wrote only eleven historicals during the time that Oriental Stories limped along, they showcase Robert E. Howard in his preferred element. Specifically, all of Robert?s historical Oriental stories take place during the Crusades, either before or after, in a dramatic underscoring of his enduring themes of civilization backsliding into barbarism. No one in these stories is a hero; they are motivated by conflict and hatred, by shame and power. Flashes of nobility arise only in the wake of an example of exemplary combat skill, or a refusal to compromise on principles. Otherwise, the stories are richly bleak with the decadence of ancient religious zeal.

The heroes of Robert?s Crusades stories were usually half-Dane or half-Frank giants, conspicuously out of place in the Middle East with their red hair, pale skin, and dour demeanor. These knight-errants all projected the same sense of fatalism about their lives and their places in history as they watched the see-saw between the Christians and the Muslims slaying each other over and over for the same strips of land. Their involvements in the crusades were less borne of idealism and more from wanderlust, revenge, or profit. Robert may have had certain historical groups in mind as he wrote about his giant outlanders, but they are nevertheless fictional, even though they are present at actual historical battles. Robert was able to skillfully insert his protagonists into the creases of these chaotic end times and write convincingly of their involvement.
It took Robert a while to find his stride on these stories. His first story set in the Crusades that sold, ?Red Blades of Black Cathay? was co-written by Tevis Clyde Smith. They presumably split the money, and Robert thereafter became a regular contributor to Oriental Stories. His work was considered by the readers to be the best of the lot. Wright agreed, since he bought nearly all of the stories that Robert sent him. In ?The Souk,? the letter column for the magazine, Wright expounded at length his knowledge of this time period, in detail equal to Robert?s own. They were, on this particular subject, kindred spirits.

Robert?s first character to wade through the gore of the crusades was Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, a half-Irish mercenary that cast a literary shadow very similar to the later Conan the Cimmerian. Himself only the subject of two stories and an incomplete fragment, he is nevertheless one of the most important characters Robert ever created. It?s been easy to dismiss the Fitzgeoffrey stories as merely a forerunner of Conan, but that in and of itself is a significant statement when one considers Conan?s world-wide appeal.

The first story, ?Hawks of Outremer,? appeared in the April, 1931 issue of Oriental Stories, and it immediately laid a few premises out for the reader; these Crusades weren?t romantic, nor particularly worthwhile, and the people involved in them were no more pious than any other period of history?in fact, many were decidedly less so. Cormac rides out to avenge the treacherous death of a comrade at the end of the first chapter, and spends the remainder of the story hacking his way ever closer to his foe. This bloody trail of vengeance is a familiar plot device in Robert?s canon, but through the historical veil of the Crusades, it garners a new twist. Seconds before and the villain, El Ghor, cross steel, they are interrupted by a contingent of men led by Saladin, the Lion of Islam, who likewise accuses El Ghor of treachery to the Saracens. and El Ghor resume their hostilities, with predictable results. then turns to Saladin and awaits the killing stroke from one of his men. To his surprise, Saladin lets him go, citing Cormac?s sense of loyalty to his friend:

Cormac sheathed his sword ungraciously. A grudging admiration for this weary-faced Moslem was born in him and it angered him. Dimly he realized at last that this attitude of fairness, justice and kindliness, even to foes, was not a crafty pose of Saladin?s, not a manner of guile, but a natural nobility of the Kurd?s nature. He saw suddenly embodied in the Sultan, the ideals of chivalry and high honor so much talked of?and so little practiced?by the Frankish knights...he suddenly realized his own barbarism and was ashamed.

The follow-up story, ?The Blood of Belshazzar,? is a wonderful exercise in paranoia as a host of interests from various nations vie for possession of a large ruby under the roof of a bandit?s stronghold in the Taurus Mountains. Everyone is out to get everyone, and is far less interested in the ruby than just living through the night. Greed ignites old grudges, and turns the stronghold into a slaughterhouse.

When the next issue of Oriental Stories hit the stands, ?The Souk? ran a letter from a fan:

Wow! What a story that ?The Blood of Belshazzar? by Robert E. Howard in the Autumn issue of Oriental Stories. If I am any judge of good fiction, this is one of the best stories printed this year in any magazine. It is what we readers want. Let us have more of Howard?s stuff.
Jack Scott, Editor, Cross Plains Review, Texas


At least one person in Cross Plains was reading Robert?s work aside from his family and friends. The motives behind Jack Scott writing this letter may have been nothing more than a genuine attempt to boost Robert?s efforts. Robert never mentioned it, nor did he count Jack Scott as one of his intimates. The two of them did work together during the Oil Boom, as Robert sold oil field gossip by the column inch, and Jack also bought ?Drums of the Sunset? to run in the Cross Plains Review. They were certainly cordial, if not friendly.

Robert started, but never completed, a third story. Instead, he decided to explore the other Crusades, and from a variety of angles. All of his successive efforts for Oriental Stories, ?The Sowers of Thunder,? ?Lord of Samarcand,? ?The Lion of Tiberias,? and ?Shadow of the Vulture,? feature stand-alone characters, but unlike any that Robert had previously set to paper. These ex-crusaders and ex-mercenaries are grim, hazy men, with indistinct edges. Sometimes they are good, and other times, they are bad. Robert called his historical fiction ?realistic,? and from his point of view, it was. He had introduced shades of gray into the black and white morality of the pulps.

?Shadow of the Vulture? introduced another Germanic campaigner of old, Gottfried von Kalmbach, and the object of his affection, Red Sonya of Rogatino?yes, that Red Sonya. When Robert introduced his ?She-Devil with a Sword,? his Sonya bore little resemblance to what would later become ?Red Sonja,? an invention of comic book creators Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. While they freely admit that Sonya was the model for Sonja, the apple fell very far from the tree.

Robert wrote Sonya as a voluptuous creature, feminine and strong, able to charm with her antics and deal death with a single swing of her sword arm. She may come off to modern readers as a bit of wish-fulfillment in the 1930s, but that doesn?t keep her from nearly stealing the show from Gottfried, such is her appeal.
Robert wrote this about his character to H.P. Lovecraft, March 6th 1933:

I'm curious to know how the readers will like Gottfried von Kalmbach, one of the main characters in a long historical yarn I sold Wright, concerning Suleyman the Magnificent's attack on Vienna. A more dissolute vagabond than Gottfried never weaved his drunken way across the pages of a popular magazine: wastrel, drunkard, gambler, *****-monger, renegade, mercenary, plunderer, thief, rogue, rascal - I never created a character whose creation I enjoyed more. They may not seem real to the readers; but Gottfried and his mistress Red Sonya seem more real to me than any other character I've ever drawn.

Kalmbach sounds a lot like some of the roughnecks that Robert was familiar with and spoke about in his many letters. Robert was taking steps to integrate character history, literally, into his fiction. While none of his prior characters were squeaky-clean to begin with, Robert took great delight in using an actual historical setting in which to depict his morally ambiguous characters.

Unfortunately, the market for Oriental Stories was never that strong, and coupled with the fallout from the Great Depression, the magazine (retitled Magic Carpet) folded in early 1934, leaving Robert with five unsold stories written specifically for that market. Considering his 100% rejection rate by Adventure, it is little wonder that he didn?t resubmit them. By that time, Robert was on to bigger and better things.
Mark Finn
Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard
Second Edition now available from the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press

Finn's Home Away From Home, REDUX!

#2 Strom

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Posted 17 December 2009 - 11:54 PM

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BLOOD AND THUNDER: THE LIFE AND ART OF ROBERT E. HOWARD
By Mark Finn

Introduction by Joe Lansdale


Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, Solomon Kane, King Kull, and many other characters that helped define the genre of heroic fantasy, lived all of his thirty years in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas. While his books remain continually in print, Howard himself has fallen into obscurity, the details of his personal life become mired in speculation, half-truth, and lies. This engaging biography traces the roots of his writings, correcting many long-standing misconceptions, and takes us on a tour of Howard's world as he saw it best: through his own incomparable imagination.

Mark Finn is an award-winning scholar, author, essayist and playwright. He was the recipient of the 2005 Cimmerian Award for Outstanding Achievement in Robert E. Howard studies, and he has presented papers on the author at many international conferences. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Order : http://www.rehfounda...pdated-edition/


Reviews:

Review

The Official REH Forum Discussion on Blood & Thunder

Other Reliable & Credible Robert E. Howard Biographical Sources:

One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price-Ellis

Day of the Stranger: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard[ by Novalyne Price-Ellis/url]

Rusty Burke's "A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard"

The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Vol 1-3

The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert Ervin Howard by Glen Lord

Report On a Writing Man & Other Reminiscences of Robert E. Howard by Tevis Clyde Smith

Edited by Strom, 30 January 2013 - 01:48 AM.
Updated 10/26/12

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