The late Tanith Lee has been considered somewhat of a writers’ writer – she never stuck to one market, her prose is often quixotic, and her stories full of these little things that make us common hacks sit upright and reevaluate our own writing prowess. Even when we can’t remember the plots of her books exactly, scenes stay with us, and characters, set-pieces, and moods. Her first novel for adults, The Birthgrave, was published by DAW in 1975, and I wonder whether it lodged itself in the mind of George R.R. Martin, then a budding writer as of yet not burdened with finishing his magnum opus or the pronunciation of international names.
Let’s consider the start of The Birthgrave.
A young woman wakes up in a volcano. She finds her way out, and the volcano erupts behind her, but leaves her unscathed. She finds herself in a village, and she’s definitely different than the villagers, with her hair and her face – well, the villagers amongst which she finds herself can’t bear looking at it. She spends a short time in the village, worshipped as a goddess, before she’s kidnapped by the warrior-king Darak. She tries to escape but is no match for him and she submits. He ravages her. Darak is the leader of the Hill People, who live in tents. She slowly warms to him, and as his wife she quickly gains influence with the tribe. She has the healing gift, but in healing one of Darak’s pregnant wifes, she kills both her and the unborn child. Darak’s got great plans for his tribe, but alas, he dies. She goes on a quest to find out her heritage -meets a dragon, gets pregnant by one of her captors- before she finds out that she’s the last survivor of lost civilisation.
Daenerys is a young woman, with her brother one of the last surviving Targaryens. She’s definitely different from the people she lives with in exile, with her white hair and striking good looks.She lives the life of a princess, before she is forced into marriage with the horse lord Khal Drogo. She fights him, but is no match for him and she submits. He ravages her. Khal Drogo is the leader of the Dothraki, who live in tents. She slowly warms to him, and as his wife she gains the respect of the tribe. She’s got great plans, reclaiming the Iron Throne, which she sees as her birthright. She gets pregnant of him, but alas, he dies, and so does her unborn child. She walks through Khal’s funeral pyre, but the fire leaves her unscathed. Now worshipped as a goddess, she becomes the mother of dragons, and goes on to try and reclaim her heritage.
When discussing the influences on his A Song of Ice and Fire cycle, George R.R. Martin has mainly cited the historical War of the Roses, and in a Guardian interview he pays his dues to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. “…after Tolkien there was a dark period in the history of epic fantasy where there were a lot of Tolkien imitations coming out that were terrible,” he’s said “I didn’t necessarily want to be associated with those books, which just seemed to me to be imitating the worst things of Tolkien and not capturing any of the great things.”
Did he capture some of the great things of Tanith Lee work? He wouldn’t be the first. On the long list Martin has cited as influences or sources of enjoyment, Lee’s name can’t be found. For me, the parallels between how TheBirthgrave and Danenerys’ storyline in A Game of Thrones begin are just too striking. Plagiarism? Or imagery that had nestled in GRRM’s mind before he started writing professionally, to jump onto the page when he began his own series a decade and a half later?
And another thing: does he correct people when they mispronounce Dothraki?
It takes much longer to write stories than to read them; plotting, drafting, screaming in frustration and starting again – never mind all the tear-stained pages on which we honed our craft, which will never see the light of day. We’re fortunate that it’s not our book sales that keep our cat (and ourselves) in kibble. However, when you buy our book, you help us to justify the time and energy we spend on the adventures of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien. While we’ve been overwhelmed by the great reactions we’ve had on our book, it all comes down to this: do we have enough sales to make it worth writing their further adventures, or do we focus on other stories?
If you like what we’ve been doing with The Red Man and Others and would like to support us (or any other indie writer whose work you’ve enjoyed) you can do the following.
Spread the word on social media. This is an important one, if not the most important: if people don’t know our book exists, they can’t buy it. The indie writer’s social media reach is limited, and their friends-list will at a certain point be fed up with them banging their drum. So, they need to break out of their own tweet-circle. You can help by retweeting, and definitely by letting your own peeps know that you’ve read an amazing book, and why you thought it was amazing.
Give our book as a present. Did you read our book, and you think it’d be perfect for this or that friend or family member? Buy it for them as a gift. More and more authors these days are offering to sign bookplates remotely, and we hope that physical events will return soon, so we can meet you and sign and dedicate our book in person.
Let us know that you love our work, and what particularly spoke to you. We spend a lot of time behind our keyboards wondering whether we’re reaching people, whether our characters have truly come to life, and whether our messages have landed. Our egos may be tender, but they can really blossom with a well-placed kind word.
Review or rate our book on sites like Amazon, Goodreads and The Storygraph. Reviews help further sales, push us up the Amazon rankings, and help authors get (better) contracts or other opportunities. Do you write reviews for a magazine, website or blog? We’d be overjoyed with the exposure (if, let’s be honest, it’s positive) and will happily provide you with images and other info to present it well.
Read it with your book group. Perhaps The Red Man and Others is something you’d like to read with your book group? Let us know! We might not be able to provide you with bulk-discounted copies, but we can provide you with talking points and anything else that might make it a great group reading experience. If the stars align, we’ll even come by (through the power of Zoom) to chat about our work and answer questions.
Buy ebooks legitimately! Research showed that only a fraction of the books on the average e-reader were bought legally. People assume that big names can absorb the losses through piracy, and for a small number of bestselling authors that may be true, at least financially speaking. It affects publishers’ bottom line, however, and with it their willingness to support ongoing series or to take a chance on lesser known name. Ultimately, this hurts us all, authors and readers alike.
Buying a physical copy? If your indie author is lucky enough not to be beholden to Amazon for their sales, choose an indie bookshop that supports local authors. Two of our favourite local bookshops are No Alibis in Belfast, and The Secret Bookshelf in Carrickfergus. They’re both brilliant at helping readers find books they don’t yet know they’ll love.
Check their book out from the library, and if they don’t have it – ask for it. The UK has Public Lending Right, which means that authors get a bit of money every time their book is checked out.
Attend events like arts/lit festivals, book launches and readings. Sometimes, writers are allowed out in the wild, and they’ll be happy to see you in the audience. With Covid stalking the land, it’s even easier to attend events through Facebook, Zoom and other platforms; you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home and your pyjamas! If there’s a chance of a Q&A you might think of some questions to stimulate audience participation.
Connect with us! Visit our blog to read our thoughts on fiction writing, folklore and pop culture, and subscribe to our email newsletter to keep up to speed on what we’re working on, and with a grab bag of what we found around the ‘net. You can find all our useful links on Linktree.
Today the mailman brought a box with our copies of The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, the Air And Nothingness Press anthology in which we have a story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star. It’s a story we’re proud of, and we’re enormously happy that it found a home in such a nice collection! It’s difficult to convey in photographs what a nice feel the cover has, how neatly it lies in the hand, the bookish smell of it (even after a lengthy transatlantic journey…). This is not just a collection of words and stories, it’s a book as an object in itself!
You can get a little taste of our story, set in the grim and cold northern Netherlands, with our story trailer…
Air and Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress, and limited editions. Head over to their catalog to order your own copy of The Wild Hunt, or any of their other publications!
Author Lee Brontide created this great meme for Twitter, which lets you talk about your main character’s goals, wishes and dreams, and we decided to make it the basis for a blog post. We’re answering here mainly for Ymke, one of the protagonists of the stories in TheRed Man and Others, but also for the stories’ other heroes, Kaila and Sebastien, as the mood strikes us.
1. Do they like to have clear goals and plans? Ymke spent her early life just surviving and going with the flow, but since her experience with Alsigt, the Red Man, crystallised her need to escape, she’s always had some quiet personal goal in mind. She’s always learning something new, often illicitly.
2. Do they wish on stars? Ymke wishes on stars when she thinks Kaila’s not looking. Kaila pretends not to have noticed. Sebastien has a hidden sentimental streak, so we actually wouldn’t rule it out.
3. Any hidden talents? Forgery is the very definition of a hidden talent!
4. Their idea of having “made it”: For Ymke, it’s independence. She knows the world can be a cruel place for disabled people, that sometimes your nearest neighbours are also your biggest threat, and that there will be times when her body lets her down. She’s had to make peace with that, and part of how she’s done that is to find ways to earn her keep. Having grown up feeling tethered to a father who was living in exile and in fear, she wants to go places and be with people out of choice rather than because she has no other option economically. Our ambition for Ymke has always been for her life, even in an analogue of medieval Europe, to reflect the conflicts and ambitions and need for justice of real disabled people in the 21st century.
5. Do they believe in destiny? If you’d ask her, Ymke would hesitate. On one hand, she feels strongly that we make our own luck. On the other, some events and circumstances in life seem to have a very strong gravitational pull. The writer in her respects their symmetry. Was the Red Man meant to end up on her farm? Was he meant to leave again? What would their lives have been otherwise? Ymke tries to make her own luck, and Kaila and Sebastien definitely do, but all three of them also get swept up in the whims of destiny. To borrow a phrase (with thanks to Bernard Cornwell), Wyrd bið ful āræd – Fate is inexorable.
6. Are they sentimental? As above, Sebastien is surprisingly so. There is much about his early life that you don’t know yet (some of it we don’t even know yet!), but through all the turmoil, he has kept with him a small artefact of his childhood. There is also in Sebastien an urge to rescue people. Ymke would deny that she is sentimental or nostalgic. She still has her mother’s book, though, and sometimes she looks through it and remembers teaching Alsigt to read; remembers her father teaching her to read years earlier. Life on the road has made her travel light and focus on what’s next, but for all the places she’s lived in, and as suddenly as she’s sometimes had to leave them, she remembers the people of those places, and some of them she thinks on fondly, and wonders about, years later. And speaking of books: in many ways Kaila is a closed book. There’s much that she’d like to forget, and some things she’ll only tell late at night, when she’s had a few cups of wine.
7. Are they ambitious? Yes, sometimes fiercely and not necessarily always wisely, and we’re really looking forward to being able to share with you a story about that. Sebastien absolutely is ambitious. He wants the best that life has to offer, and he’ll get it. Will it be straightforward? Of course not. It’s Sebastien! We didn’t realise what we were doing, but in writing Ymke this year for one particular Red Man sequel, we accidentally caught ambition ourselves: it turned from a short story into a novella. Then another draft we’re working on did exactly the same, inching towards the 40K mark now. Oops.
8. Are they gracious winners? We wish we could tell you why that’s funny, with regard to one of our characters in particular, in one of the novellas we’re working on. We will say that Ymke is capable of being gracious and conciliatory in both victory and defeat. Sometimes, victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin, though.
9. Do they regret much? Ymke regrets blood spilled on her behalf, even though it’s the reason she’s alive. She regrets that it took the events in The Red Man for her to get out of the rut that was her life. She doesn’t regret the business with Father Folkhert, as dangerous as it got in the end. She meant well. She always means well. It’s just that things have a way of getting out of hand. Especially with Kaila and Sebastien around.
10. Do they keep their dreams secret? For a long time, Ymke was not accustomed to letting herself dream, and when she began to, her father was quick to clip her wings. So, she’s learned to nurture dreams quietly. And some dreams require a little skullduggery to make them happen, of course…
11. Are they prone to envy? Yes. This came as a surprise to Ymke. Living largely apart from others until her mid-teens means she didn’t realise just how much she had been missing out on, until she’d been out in the world a while. Sometimes it takes seeing other people – who are leading more ordinary lives – progress through life stages that were very different for you to fully realise what your life might have been. Encountering the sheltered city sons and daughters of her friends in middle age was strangely bitter for Ymke.
12. What skill are they most proud of? For Ymke, it’s cultivating people, in more than one sense of the word. She’s good at encouraging people and bringing out their potential. She’s also adept at making herself part of a place, so that she is valued and receives support that doesn’t feel like charity; like many disabled people, Ymke has a complicated relationship with that. And, when she has to, she can lie convincingly. These are achievements not taken for granted by someone who came from such an isolated upbringing.
13. What milestones do they care about? The irreversible ones, like “I can’t make it up these stairs any more,” which will inevitably come. When something changes in her body, Ymke waits it out through four seasons, in the hope that it is temporary and contextual. If it proves permanent, her way of life has to change – maybe a little, maybe a lot. Progressive disability is fun that way.
14. Do they procrastinate? No. There’s no procrastinating on a farm. The animals need fed and the seasons move on, so things need doing. This is how Ymke was brought up, and this is what she’s carried with her.
15. Are they good under pressure? All three of them are. They’ve had to be.
16. Do they daydream? Ymke certainly does. She certainly did on the farm, and she still did when the places she visited and the people she met far surpassed those of her imagination.
17. Do they believe in signs or omens? Ymke’s rational adult side is rather at war with the fearful, superstitious side that was cultivated in her childhood. She’ll very quietly feel a certain way about things that have enough symbolic weight. Sebastien, though he’s wise to the tricks of cold reading and the stacked deck of cards, also has seen enough to keep some room for the “What if?…”
18. Do other people believe in them? They believe in each other, though that is sometimes very considerably tested. In The Return of the Uncomplaining Child a great many people believe in Sebastien, and they worked very hard at that. None believe as much as Father Folkhert did: more than they could have hoped.
19. Would they rather be over- or underestimated? It changes. When our trio are up to chicanery, it serves them to be underestimated. Ymke chafed against her father’s underestimation of her in her early life, yet like many women, there have been times when her survival has depended on people underestimating her. She’s learned to leverage that. In the story we’re working on now she feels extremely frustrated and overlooked, though, and she’s coping with it in an unusual way.
20. How do they celebrate their successes? Depends on the nature of the success. Sometimes a quiet night together in front of a good fire is enough. Sometimes it requires a substantial quantity of drink. If they’ve made themselves rich, however temporarily, they’ll share some of it with someone who needs it more.
21. Are they good at accepting help? Sebastien does, though he may be less happy with the assumption of a debt owed. Ymke, only when she can convince herself she’s giving out at least twice as much support as she’s taking. Kaila may accept, but not ask for help.
22. How do they cope with failure? Ruthless self examination, in Ymke’s case; rants to well-chosen confidantes. And ultimately, by finding something to fix, which may take many forms. Sebastien brushes himself off, and turns the page. Kaila will be sore until she feels she’s restored the balance. This is not always the sensible course.
23. Smallest thing they’re proud of: For Ymke, it’s her stitching. For Sebastien it’s his moral compass. Kaila’s got this tattoo, you see…
24. Do they do New Year’s resolutions? Yes, very much so, in Ymke’s case. Sebastien will have many, Kaila none. At least none she’ll share with others.
25. Do they keep them? Ymke usually does.. She’s determined that way, and she sets realistic goals. Sebastien’s resolutions are broken as easy as hastily made promises. Kaila’s resolutions are not made at the start of a year, and may not be resolved within the year.
If you enjoyed this look into the minds and lives of Ymke, Kaila and Sebastien, we’d like – nay, we implore – you to seek out the collection The Red Man and Others on Amazon UK or US. We’ll meanwhile work on their further adventures!
Today we received the proof of our story for the upcoming Air & Nothingness Press collection The Wild Hunt, which contains our tale With One Eye, Bright As A Star. This is something we’re enormously proud of!
Air & Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress and handmade limited editions. In an age of POD they publish collector’s items, books which are beautiful and nicely produced as objects. We already loved the cover of their previous collection, Upon a Once Time, and find the one for The Wild Hunt absolutely stunning! In French folded covers, it samples art by Franz von Stuck, and combines it with daring typography. We are very much looking forward to its appearance, so we can share it and our story with you!
We’re especially proud of this story appearing in the collection, as it’s one of the more personal stories we’ve written. Sure, it has a supernatural angle (how could it not!), but the boy at the centre of this particular Wild Hunt could have been me, in the distant past. It is set in the landscape where I grew up, where stories of the Wild Hunt are indeed part of our folklore. The boy’s grandfather meanwhile is a lot like the one I knew, with elements of my other grandfather, who died before I was born; he’d been in the Royal Dutch Cavalry before he settled back in the village where he was born (and I too) and became a farm hand. I never knew him, but have often imagined what he was like.
As we’re nearing Hallowe’en, which certainly is Angeline’s favourite festival, we decided to celebrate The Red Man and Others‘ first (and a bit) birthday in style!
We’ve reduced the price of the eBook to £1.99 / $2.99 for the rest of the month, and you get a chance to win an original piece of The Red Man and Others art!
Of course we’re always happy with sales of our book (it’s a good incentive to keep writing the adventures of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien), but what makes us extra happy is to hear what you think of it. We’ve already been lucky to have received kind words from some notable names in the field, but we’d also like to see your review on Goodreads and/or Amazon!
So, at 6pm GMT on 31st October, we’ll gather the reviews from Goodreads and Amazon (UK and US), and throw them in the hat. The winner whose name we draw gets to choose one of these pieces! Both are A3 size, done in ink and (the Kaila and Ymke painting) acrylics.
To make it fair on those who have supported us since the book was published, we’ll also include their names!
And, if you love our stories, why not give our ebook to someone else as a present? Click here for details – it comes with a certificate containing a mini-fic!
Ice winds strike a flint-edged sea And splinter flakes that scatter like birds Trees turn to gold and die As does all born of the sun – Origin unknown
This is the opening epigram of “The Masters”, the first book in Ricardo Pinto‘s “Stone Dance of the Chameleon” series. I picked it because it works beautifully as a short poem, but also because of the feeling of foreboding it creates and how fitting that makes it as the opening of a story about a decadent society teetering on the edge of collapse. As a writer I think a lot about first and last lines, and how to make them work. As a reader, there’s a very good chance that the right first or last line will live in my memory for decades. ABA
“Hear, people of Valusia,” he exclaimed, upheld by the wild beast vitality which was his, fired from within by a strength which was more than physical. “I stand here – the king. I am wounded almost unto death, but I have survived mass wounds.
“Hear you! I am weary of this business! I am no king but a slave! I am hemmed in by laws, laws, laws! I cannot punish malefactor nor reward my friends because of laws – custom – tradition! By Valka, I will be king in fact as well as in name!
“Here stand the two who have saved my life! Henceforward they are free to marry, to do as they like!”
Seno and Ala rushed into each others’ arms with a glad cry.
“But the law!” screamed Tu.
“I am the law!” roared Kull, swinging his axe; it flashed downard and the stone tablet flew into a hundred pieces. The people clenched their hands in horror, waiting dumbly for the sky to fall.
Kull reeled back, eyes blazing. The room whirled to his dizzy gaze.
“I am king, state and law!” he roared, and seizing the wand-like sceptre which lay near, he broke it in two and flung it from him. “This shall be my sceptre!” The red axe was brandished aloft, splashing the pallid nobles with drops of blood. Kull gripped the slender crown with his left hand and placed his back against the wall. Only that support kept him from falling but in his arms was still the strength of lions.
“I am either king or corpse!” he roared, his corded muscles bulging, his terrible eyes blazing. “If you like not my kingship – come and take this crown!”
The corded left arm held out the crown, the right gripping the menacing axe above it.
“By this axe I rule! This is my sceptre! I have struggled and sweated to be the puppet king you wished me to be – to king it your way. Now I use mine own way! If you will not fight, you shall obey! Laws that are just shall stand; laws that have outlived their times I shall shatter as I shattered that one! I am king!”
Slowly the pale faced noblemen and frightened women knelt, bowing in fear and reverence to the blood stained giant who towered above them with his eyes ablaze.
“I am king!”
This is the closing paragraph from Robert E. Howard‘s King Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”. It’s not from the best book or best story I’ve ever read – which that is depends on when you ask me. Neither is this from the best story Howard ever wrote. Yet, this is the fragment I’d like to share for World Book Day. I was in my early twenties when I got hold of the paperback with this story. It was a period in my life in which I went through a lot of personal growth; I had to decide for myself whether I was going to be king or corpse, and so I smashed some old tablets and adopted a double-bladed axe to rule by. RvS
Culhwch shook his head. ‘They want a Christian King, Arthur.’
‘They’ll have Mordred next year,’ Arthur said.
‘Is he a Christian?’ Culhwch asked.
‘If he’s anything,’ I said.
‘But he’s not who they want,’ Culhwch said darkly.
‘Then who is?’ Arthur asked, intrigued at last by his cousin’s warnings.
Culhwch hesitated, then shrugged. ‘Lancelot.’
‘Lancelot!’ Arthur sounded amused. ‘Don’t they know he keeps his pagan temples open?’
‘They don’t know anything about him,’ Culhwch said, ‘but they don’t need to. They think of him the same way that people thought about you in the last years of Uther’s life. They think of him as their deliverer.’
‘Deliverer from what?’ I asked scornfully.
‘Us Pagans, of course,’ Culhwch said. ‘They insist Lancelot is the Christian King who’ll lead them all to heaven. And do you know why? Because of that sea eagle on his shield. It’s got a fish in its claws, remember? And the fish is a Christian symbol.’ He spat in disgust.
‘They don’t know anything about him,’ he said again, ‘but they see that fish and think it’s a sign from their God.’
‘A fish?’ Arthur plainly didn’t believe Culhwch.
‘A fish,’ Culhwch insisted.
Whether you want to give our ebook, The Red Man and Others as a gift to someone else, or whether you’re self-partnered and want to treat yourself; it comes with several cool benefits… – You can send it to your loved one from the comfort of your home – Low carbon footprint – 3 Cracking good Fantasy stories with bold heroines in love And: – Get a Valentine’s certificate with a bonus short story to go with the book!
How it works: 1. Go to the page for our ebook on Amazon US or Amazon UK. 2. On the product detail page, click the ‘Buy for others’ button. 3. Enter the email address of your gift recipient. Tip: If you don’t know their email address, select ‘Email the gift to me’, and it will be sent to your own email address. 4. Enter a delivery date and an optional gift message. 5. Click ‘Place your order’ to finish your gift purchase using Amazon’s 1-Click payment method. 6. Download our certificate here on Google Drive. 7. Print the certificate out if you want something physical to give, or email it to your gift recipient.
(This article appeared previously in Fortean Times, in January 2013, and was nominated for a Robert E Howard Foundation Award).
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
With these words, Texan writer Robert E Howard introduced his most famous hero to the readers of the now legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, 80 years ago now. It would be difficult to find someone who has not heard of Conan, be it through the comics, films or abundant paperbacks. They’ll know he’s a barbarian, battles wizards and monsters, and that he has mighty thews, though not necessarily what thews are.
But if they’ve heard of Robert E Howard at all, chances are they’ll have the notion that he was a paranoid, gun-toting, redneck savant who locked himself up at night and typed up the stories dictated by his ghostly barbarian muse. They also know that he had an unsound relationship with his mother, and killed himself when she died. Until quite recently there wasn’t much decent biographical information available, and since nature abhors a vacuum this lead to much speculation and a distorted picture of the man who seemingly out of nowhere created the genre of Sword and Sorcery.
Few would consider that Howard’s main theme, barbarism versus civilisation, goes much deeper than the snarling brute of popular imagination, and that it is actually a reversal of that image. Few would readily accept that the Conan stories form but a small part of Howard’s output in many other genres. In fact, he was effectively done with the Fantasy genre, and might not have revisited it, even had he lived past the ripe young age of 30.
The truth, as always, is less prosaic than the myth, but also far more interesting. To really understand Robert E Howard, however, you have to know where he came from; and then the rural Texas of the early 20th Century seems less unlikely a place for the father of Sword and Sorcery.
Before the Howards settled down in Cross Plains in 1919, they’d wandered all over Texas. Isaac Howard was a doctor who chased the various oil, cattle, land and railroad booms. He practiced what was called frontier medicine, a heady mix of practicality and experiment, always trying to stay at the forefront of medical developments. He may have bought into quack schemes, but also used revolutionary techniques such as hypnosis, and read books on yoga and Eastern mysticism. Later, when his son looked for inspiration for one of his occult stories, he didn’t have to look further than his dad’s study. FT readers may be happy to know that Robert himself had Fort’s Lo! in his collection.
Easy to get along with, a bit rough around the edges but capable, Isaac Howard was the sort of man that thrived in the West. The Texans of that time saw their society in transition; old-timers still remembered the battles with the Native Americans, and the Mexican civil war was just a decade behind them. Predominantly agricultural communities found themselves overrun by industry and, whenever oil was found, an influx of transient workers. Not getting any younger, with a wife in bad health and a teenage son, Isaac hoped to get settled in Cross Plains before it hit a boom, before all the other speculators, and his gamble paid off.
Much is unclear about Isaac’s wife Hester prior to their marriage.Hester Ervin was from Irish stock, one of 16 children from her father’s two marriages. She had a hard life taking care of siblings with TB, contracting this dreaded disease herself in the process. In his correspondence, Robert described how the Ervins, a ‘race of wanderers’, conquered the West in the mid 19th century, but while the basic facts of this personal myth check out, Hester must have told him many a white lie: she was a proud woman, and a degrading existence of starvation and hardship did not offer heroic tales to pass on to her son.
She seemed destined to be an ‘old maid’, until she met Isaac Howard in 1904, when she was 34 and he 32. They married, as much for practicality as for love: it offered her an escape and him a travelling companion and valuable help. They really didn’t expect any children, and that suited them well; Isaac was busy with his practice, she in the early stages of TB, and they were constantly on the road. Then, she conceived and miraculously – pregnancy was dangerous at the best of times – she and her son both survived. Somehow, the birth certificate lists Robert’s birthday as 24 (instead of 22) January 1906, and reduces her age by five years. It was the first time, but definitely not the last, that the facts surrounding Robert E Howard would be twisted.
Wherever they went, Isaac found plenty of work and respect. With him often away from home and with no proper roots wherever they lived, Hester and her only child were dependant on each other’s company, and a strong bond formed between them. Robert was a precocious child and, having learned to read at the age of two, devoured the classics of Stevenson, Haggard and Jack London. Increasingly housebound, Hester recited poetry to her son and presented her tuberculosis as the disease of poets and thinkers. She taught him the history, lore and legends of Mother Ireland, which gave him the idea that they themselves were descended from Irish royalty.
Most of Howard’s heroes are of what he defined as the Gaelic type, and he could give them depth of character because he identified with them. He may not have believed in reincarnation, but frequently used it in his stories, and as Conan of Cimmeria is a far descendant of Kull of Valusia, Cormac of Connacht in turn is one of the Celts the Cimmerians evolved into.
All of them are loners and fighters, all of them in exile of sorts. The outlaw Turlogh O’Brien, the pirate Cormac MacArt and the crusader Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Brian Boru’s warlord Red Cumal, Cormac of Connacht – these men come not to build or create, but rather to kill and destroy; at best maintain. Conan and Kull end up as kings, but sit uneasy on their stolen thrones. These are all men that Howard could identify with, and it can’t be coincidence that most of them are tall and dark-haired. Some had grey eyes, some blue, but all of them, including Howard, could have been siblings.
Then there was Isaac’s mother: “My grandmother was but one generation removed from south Ireland and she knew by heart all the tales and superstitions of the folks,” remembered Robert in a letter to H P Lovecraft, “All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her.” She, and the stories she told, made young Robert’s hair rise, and while he tried his hand at the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, it’s in stories like “Pigeons from Hell” that he’s at his best. Their horrors are on a more human scale, an air of authenticity created with off-hand details and bang-on characterisation, and it’s easy to imagine that he wrote them with his grandmother’s voice in mind.
The legends of the Celts weren’t the only ones he heard, though, and in the same letter to Lovecraft he recalled the stories told by the Howards’ cook in his early childhood, an ex-slave he called Aunt Mary Bohannon. The returning dead of her tales may have been imaginary, but the cruel slave-master and his whippings certainly were not. These stories were the first that really moved him, and though the world he lived in was inherently racist, segregation was never clear-cut to him.
H P Lovecraft may have been one of those middle class townies for whom it was easy to expound on the virtues of the white race, the Howards dealt more closely with their black neighbours and Hester especially knew how despised the Irish themselves had been. While she taught her son to be proud of his heritage, Robert usually wrote with sympathy about those who history gave the short end of the stick – the Native Americans, the black antagonists of his boxing stories and especially the wild, elusive Picts and their god-king Bran Mak Morn.
That Robert’s later stories are so eminently readable, and that each has its own strong narrative voice, can be traced to those stories told to him from his earliest days. From Aunt Mary, his mother and his grandmother he learned to tell a tale as if he himself believed it, no matter how tall or fanciful it was. His stories are on a human scale, “Poets are dangerous things,” he reveals in one King Kull tale, “because they believe what they sing, at the time“. But it wasn’t just the stories he heard that formed him and informed his own writing: with the blood and violence that we find there in such abundance he was all too familiar.
As son of a country doctor, Robert became familiar not just with the farming accidents you’d expect, but also with the legacy of the population explosion caused by the oil boom: knife and fist fights were common amongst the roughnecks, and as victims of violence and industrial accidents were dropped on the Howard’s porch to be patched up by his father, innocence was soon lost for the young observer. As he later confided in a letter to H P Lovecraft: “The average child of ten or twelve who’s lived through a boom or so, knows more vileness and bestial sinfulness than a man of thirty should know.” [Letter to HPL, December 1930]
But Robert also learned other lessons on the rounds with Isaac. Often, Robert would wait on the porch and listen to the old-timers as they exchanged stories. Tall tales had been a vital and daily part of life in the frontiering of the old West, and had both a social and psychological function. They invariably dealt with the life of hardship the pioneers led, but also celebrated their individualism, courage and resilience. In Robert’s lifetime these tales reflected nostalgia for an era before progress, keeping the frontier spirit that was so typical for the American character alive.
Often, such tales would have a core of truth, either in their main character or historical event, and they were told with humor or exaggeration. Bragging was a celebrated skill, with the audience complicit in the lie – as often as not, the narrator was the butt of the joke. In earlier times these settlers, cowboys and roughnecks would have created a Beowulf; in this more realistic age, the tales took a more comic, parodic, or ironic turn. Humour makes a hard life softer.
As a teenager, Robert had gone out with his friends to gather tales from the old people, not unlike what the Brothers Grimm had done a century earlier, and he’d become something of an expert, lecturing out-of-state correspondents on local history and lore. However, while he saw folklore and myth as the collective folk memory and part of the history and identity of a people, he couldn’t resist tweaking the stories to improve them, as he also ‘improved’ his own family’s history. In his work, too, he would rewrite history in the guise of fiction.
Especially the stories Robert wrote at the dawn of his career for local newspapers and magazines adhere closely to the form of traditional tall tale, with colourful language, local settings and a nostalgia for the old ways of the wild, wild West that were disappearing rapidly. This influence remained particularly strong in his boxing adventures and comedy westerns, with protagonists like the oafish Breckenridge Elkins recognised as parodies of Robert himself. To his later Westerns he brought realism: far less straightforward than the White Hat heroics of John Wayne, they foreshadow the violence and grit of Sergio Leone. At a time when the detectives of Hammett and Chandler exploded in the pulps, Howard wrote what could best be described as ‘Desert Noir’.
Though classified as a Fantasy tale, “Beyond the Black River” is as realistic as any of Howard’s stories. It’s one of the later Conan-stories, and with his hero at the height of his popularity, Howard found the freedom to infuse it with the concerns that kept him awake at night, firmly grounding it in his own native soil. Sure, it contains some magic, but not much of it, and what it is really about is life on the frontier. Written in 1935 it reaches back to when he first thought of Conan while visiting the town of Mission, near the border between Texas and Mexico.
Mission lies a mere 15 miles from the Alamo mission, where James Bowie, with the frontiersman-turned-congressman Davey Crocket, fought a losing battle in 1836 against invading Mexican troops. The Alamo passed into legend, ultimately culminating in the image of John Wayne wearing a raccoon on his head. In Howard’s story, the outpost is on the Pictish border, where Conan joins the young woodsman Baltus and tries to save the fort from a Pictish uprising, ignored as it is by an uncaring government.
The hero of tall tales is larger than life, distinguished by an extraordinary birth or childhood, and usually associated with an animal. It took five storks to deliver Paul Bunyan, and he adventured through the whole of America with his blue ox Babe. Calamity Jane apparently was on horseback before she could talk, Davey Crockett had “the ugliest dog in the district” and Pecos Bill was raised by coyotes. These animals are totems, like Odin’s ravens and the dog that gave Cuchulainn his name. Battlefield-born Conan is known as Amra, the Lion, while Baltus teams up with a vengeful half-wild dog.
In this Hyborean Alamo, Conan and Baltus stand in for the larger than life folk heroes Bowie and Crockett, and the story is built from the stuff that tall tales are made of, in which their heroes often find themselves fighting against ‘progress’, trying to preserve their way of life. Conan here is that hero, warning against the proverbial barbarians at the gate, but also using his own barbarian ways to preserve the status quo. And as so often in these tales, the fight is ultimately futile, and Baltus -as did Crockett- dies a heroic death. Conan survives by the skin of his teeth, and as the story concludes we find him in a pub, nursing his grudge against civilisation. The words spoken to him by a fellow survivor could have been those of Howard himself:
“‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'”
This belief was intimately rooted in Howard’s early experience of the world. The oil boom came to Cross Plains when he was a teenager, bringing with it a tide of speculators, roughnecks, criminality and disease. Robert grew up an impassioned critic of how oil booms destroyed the social, economic and moral structures of previously stable communities. As he wrote in the Argosy All-Story Weekly in the spring of 1929:
“I’ve seen towns leap into being overnight and become deserted almost as quick. I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil wholesale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers and gangsters in a matter of months.”
In the intensely practical culture of Cross Plains in the ’20s, few people would regard Howard’s career as writer as a legitimate job or part of his family’s financial support. He had tried to fit in and taken various manual jobs, but he hated being told what to do by people he considered his intellectual inferiors. He slogged off his frustration in boxing matches and ironically gained respect as regional champion amongst the roughnecks he otherwise despised. When his father allowed him to focus on his writing, Robert increasingly withdrew from the community, and soon he felt he was seen as “Doc Howard’s crazy son Bob“.
Howard would spend the rest of his life shuttling between brain and brawn, and Novalyne Price, the on/off girlfriend of his late twenties, didn’t know which she’d be dating on any given day. He was quick to anger at perceived slights, and found plenty to criticise as the town experienced a second oil boom. Howard probably felt that his disdain was justified, and the bleak tone in which he described his world at the time to his correspondents bore all the signs of a bitter social detachment.
The photograph of him that is most often reproduced is also the least representative. “That damn fool hat bothers me,” he complained to Novalyne when she made him wear it for the photograph. For him it represented the hated sweep of modernity in rural Texas, and though he’d wear it for her, he would – or could – conform no further and eventually they broke up. Half a century later Price wrote about their time together in “One Who Walked Alone”. The book is required reading for any Howard scholar, and the film based on it, “The Whole Wide World”, should appeal to fan and layman alike.
While ill at ease with the people of Cross Plains, Howard found an ersatz family in the authors of Weird Tales. This brotherhood of authors like H P Lovecraft, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith and E Hoffman Price passionately argued their work and influences, and indulged in sneaking references to Lovecraft’s Old Ones in their stories. There was an enormous respect for each other, but also insurmountable differences. Lovecraft’s racism irked Howard, and when Hoffman Price visited Cross Plains he raised an eyebrow over Howard’s armed vigilance against highway robbers, not realising that he’d fallen victim to authentic, Texan showmanship; myth-making in progress.
Editor Farnsworth Wright, as Pater Famillias of Weird Tales, was a capricious figure who approved or rejected stories according to his own taste and instinct. He as much as Howard shaped what Conan would become. Left to himself, Howard would include few love interests and what women did appear could easily take care of themselves. Under Wright’s aegis, there was sex appeal, and floggings were abundant, with a chivalrous Conan rushing to the rescue.
In the latter cycle of Conan stories Howard had the opportunity to investigate the various themes that interested him, but it wasn’t always like this. While Wright liked much of the first of two Conan stories Howard submitted to him in 1932, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, his verdict on the other was brief: “I am returning ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ in a separate envelope, as I do not much care for it“. [Letter, 10 March1932].
Howard often described how Conan sprung up in his mind fully formed while on holiday, the combination of “various prize-fighters gunmen, bootleggers, oilfield bullies, gamblers and honest workmen,” but he confided in Novalyne Price that this was a stock answer and any character’s origins were a mystery to him. And while he might have had the initial idea for Conan at the Rio Grande, it took him quite a while to get a handle on the character and his world.
To help him get started he based “The Phoenix on the Sword” on an unsold Kull adventure, “By this Axe I rule”, with the romantic subplot removed and some magic inserted. Farnsworth Wright requested a rewrite, and Howard duly replaced a lengthy introduction with that now famous quote from the Nemedian Chronicles, starting “Know, O Prince,” then mentioning Atlantis and “an age undreamt of“. Hither came Conan, and Howard felt that he had a winner on his hands.
Though he disparaged himself as a hack and told others that the stories wrote themselves, Howard actually worked hard at both the craft of writing and the marketing of his stories. He outlined them in detail, then wrote multiple drafts and made careful revisions. Howard was not the idiot savant that fantasy fandom myths sometimes make him out to be. He drew a map of Conan’s world and gave it a pseudo-historical framework with his essay The Hyborean Age.
The second batch of Conan yarns Howard wrote yielded far from the best stories. Howard knew that he could get away with writing to a formula and sell just about every Conan story he did.”I had a splitting sick headache, too, when I wrote the first half,” he told Clark Ashton Smith about “Rogues in the House”, and stories like “Iron Shadows in the Moon” and “Black Colossus” are not any better. With their obligatory monsters and damsels in distress, though, they are among the most imitated precisely because their formula is easy to follow.
Howard wrote these stories at a gallop: the Depression has killed off some of the other magazines he sold to, and as his mother’s health was spiralling downwards he needed the money to cover her medical expenses. The Howards relied on the cheques that they received each month from Weird Tales, but then those cheques stopped too coming, with the not inconsiderable sum of $800 owed. Farnsworth Wright’s idiosyncratic approach to publishing also extended to the payroll administration.
“I always hate to write a letter like this, but dire necessity forces me to. It is, in short, an urgent plea for money. It is nothing new for me to need money, but the present circumstances are different from those in which I generally found myself in the past,” begins a letter Howard wrote to Wright in May 1935, followed by the eerily prophetic “If you cut off my monthly checks now, I don’t know what in God’s name we’ll do.“
The whole letter is worth reading and would wring tears from a stone, but Robert received reply nor money from Wright. While he finished some more Conan stories, they were works in transition. Increasingly he realised that his heart lay in the wild West, and “Black River” is already halfway there. The last was “Red Nails”, its crumbling of a decadent civilisation not merely the backdrop for the stor, but its meat and bones. With this, Howard was done with Conan and with Weird Tales.
As 1935 ended and 1936 began, a crisis seemed unavoidable. Isaac was seldom home, relentlessly doing the rounds amongst his poverty-stricken patients. Through his agent Robert found some success selling his Westerns to magazines that did pay, but he missed the stability that Weird Tales had offered. Hester’s health deteriorated further and as he now was her sole carer, Robert hardly found time to work. “Woman after woman we hired, and they quit, either worn out by the work or unwilling to do it,” he wrote in his last letter to Lovecraft, in May 1936, “I’ve gone for nearly a week at a time without even taking off my shoes, just snatching a nap as I could between times.“
Though Esther’s condition had stabilised when Robert wrote this, he knew it was temporary. Emotionally drained, he saw no prospect of earning a steady living from his writing, had no-one to love (and love him) and feared growing old or ill himself, and for him “the game was not worth the candle“. Isaac saw it coming, had hidden the household’s firearms, but had reckoned without the borrowed small gun that Robert kept in the glove compartment of his car. On the 11th of June 1936 Hester sank into a coma from which Robert was assured she would not awake. He walked out of the door, got into the car, and shot himself.
“Can you authenticate the story?” wrote Hoffman Price, “It seems so damn outrageous I can’t believe it.” Lovecraft had written him the bad news, taking it upon himself to write an obituary for Weird Tales in memory of Howard’s work. “To hell with the blow to literature,” bristled Hoffman Price, “the loss of the man is so damned incomparably greater than the loss of anything as stupid as literature.” He himself tried to sum up his friend, but found it impossible. “An overgrown boy–a brooding anachronism” he tried, “A man of strange, whimsical, bitter and utterly illogical resentments and hatreds and enmities and grudges.” Eventually gave up, concluding only that, “If you met Howard, I can not add; if you did not, I can not start.” – an undoubted truth that has tripped up Howard scholars and biographers ever since.
A heartbroken Isaac Howard buried his wife and son and began the consuming work of putting Robert’s affairs in order, amongst them the now legendary ‘trunk’ containing thousands of pages of unsorted typescripts, notes, drafts and letters. He tried to get the Weird Tales payments, by then over $1500, out of Farnsworth Wright but it only got him letters about the editor’s own ill health. Aged by both time and his circumstances, Isaac died in 1944. Lovecraft had already passed on in 1937 and Weird Tales went under in 1954 in the general collapse of the pulps.
In the 1950s, the Conan stories resurfaced in hardbacks after Weird Tales writer August Derleth successfully brought Lovecraft’s work to a small but dedicated audience. Where Lovecraft had a torch bearer in Derleth, Howard got science fiction writer L. Sprague deCamp who saw his own career on the wane and seized with both hands the opportunity to edit Howard’s work. He then dipped into ‘the trunk’, completing unfinished drafts and converting Howard’s other work into tales of Conan. “This did not prove difficult,” he wrote proudly, “I had merely to delete anachronisms and introduce a supernatural element.”
In the mid-60s Frank Frazetta fixed the definitive look of Conan with his cover paintings for mass market Lancer paperbacks, while deCamp as self-appointed biographer sketched the popular image of Robert E Howard as “maladjusted to the point of psychosis“. Many rewrites and ‘posthumous collaborations’ and pastiches by deCamp, Lin Carter and others followed; then the Marvel comics and finally John Milius’s 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian”. By now, Conan had become an oiled-up Muscle Beach hero, and Howard himself the subject of broad speculation. “He was convinced that the town wanted to exterminate him… and he would go home and board up his windows, load rifles…A complete nut!” director John Milius says in a documentary accompanying his film. He continues: “he’s alone one night, and he feels a shadow overtake him from behind, and he knows that Conan stand behind him with a large axe! And Conan tells him: ‘Stay there and write!’.”
Howard himself had now become a myth, a tall tale.
Ever since the early 50s, Robert E Howard has had a dedicated fan following, quickly centering around Glenn Lord, the literary agent for the Howard Estate. It was he who had tracked down ‘the trunk’, and published those letters, drafts and poems not picked up by other publishers in his fan magazine, The Howard Collector. If the adulterated Conan had always been a thorn in the side of these fans, the 21st century saw some light on the horizon, first with Dark Horse comics based solely on Howard’s writing, then with rumours of a new Conan movie, and finally with gorgeously illustrated reprints of pure Howard and several well-researched biographies.
But even now the urge to mythologise is difficult to overcome. Unable to come to terms with Howard’s suicide, the story of the fans’ literary hero, his depression and untimely death demands a clearly identifiable external cause, and the finger is often pointed at Hester and Isaac Howard: she portrayed as demanding and shackling her son with her apron strings; Isaac as absent and greedy. In the larger story of Howard scholarship meanwhile, deCamp is still seen as an usurper whose meddling did Conan more harm than good. There still is a lot to unpick and perhaps ignored: Howard was a complex man whose life does not obey the rules of drama.
Besides, rather than focus on his death, it may be more fruitful to focus on Howard’s writing. Underneath all the fantastic trappings, Howard wrote about a world he knew. The bulk of his work is written with skill and honesty, and is as fresh as when it first appeared a lifetime ago. “But the real secret“, wrote HP Lovecraft of Robert E Howard’s stories, “is that he himself is in each and every one of them“.