I’ve been negligent on writing my further thoughts of this book (having finished reading it some time ago). Well, to be honest, the word reluctant would be better than negligent- as if I’m feeling too defensive about it. In REH fandom circles, Mark Finn is highly respected, and his REH bio is well-regarded, and quite rightly so. However, it’s also fanned the flames of the fan community against L Sprague de Camp’s Dark Valley Destiny, which I think is wrong. Now, I’m not going to defend De Camp’s erroneous views on Robert E Howard or De Camp’s notorious business practices/what he did with the Conan stories etc. But Dark Valley Destiny is possibly a better book than Blood & Thunder, or at least better written, so that while many will argue that Blood & Thunder is the definitive biography of Robert E Howard, I would argue that that book is yet to be written.
Well, I guess that’s opened the invite for lots of trolling and my name on the REH forums to be roundly castigated. So I had better qualify that statement; you see, Blood & Thunder is like sitting down for a friendly chat with Mark, a warm fireside chat about Howard and his work. It’s all very pleasant and familiar. But it doesn’t come across as authoritative, well-studied or written as Dark Valley Destiny. Of course, I know that’s a misguided assessment- Mark Finn knows his REH and his research is extensive. It’s just how its written- Dark Valley Destiny may come to all the wrong conclusions but it cites all it’s sources religiously, whereas Blood & Thunder doesn’t. Dark Valley Destiny reads like an analytical, serious detached work, wheras Blood & Thunder reads like a book written by a fan, which of course it is. Is that a weakness? Maybe not, but its hardly conductive to an impartial read (the fictional sections describing Howard during his life are as misguided and ill-placed as they seemed in Blood & Thunders‘ earlier edition, more akin to something from fandom than an academic work).
That’s the biggest problem with Mark Finn’s Blood & Thunder, if it is one (and some would argue it isn’t)- it is that the book is somewhat too defensive of Robert E Howard, and perhaps also his family, the latter being a particular problem for me. I realise that this is because Mark’s mandate, self-professed, is to refute the many assertions triumphed in L Sprague De Camp’s earlier REH biography Dark Valley Destiny (mainly the one that REH was just plain crazy). B&T has many good points arguing against some of DVD‘s misguided claims but I think it actually goes too far.
For instance, I have always been disturbed by REH’s parents. Hell, they’d disturb anybody. His mother Hester was ill for a very long time with Tuberculosis, for most of her life infact, and she long felt that life had dealt her many an injustice. Her marriage to REH’s father Isaac was strained, if not broken, for most of REH’s life, and she smothered REH with attention throughout his childhood and into his adult years. Isaac, meanwhile, was something of a wandering spirit, always looking for the next big break, uprooting the family throughout REH’s early years, settling for short times in many places. REH never had a sense of place, of roots, or any lengthy childhood friendships. This obviously all had a huge impact on REH’s character.
REH was only human. I’d like to think that, having read so much about him over the last three decades, and all his letters published by the REHF, I kind of know him as best it is possible to know a dead man who lived and died thirty years before I was born. He wasn’t perfect. He was, as I say, only human. A sensitive, often isolated man with an incredible gift for telling stories. He was a multi-faceted and gifted human being, and I would love to spend an hour in his company with a cold beer. I don’t have to put him on a great pedestal in order to champion his work. I can live with some of his racism, his views on reincarnation, so much else- he was a product of his time and place. We all are. Of course he throws plenty of n-bombs in some of his stories; I don’t have to approve in order to enjoy the stories.
But there we are; Robert E Howard was a imperfect human being who lived a very difficult life in spite of his great gift for storytelling. I know he would defend his mother and father and his homelife with great passion, but I also know that his mother, his father, his home, all doomed Howard to a misguided act of self-destruction and an unjust early grave. I often think that had he somehow continued his relationship with Novalyne, his one and only girlfriend, he might have survived the crisis he felt as his mother neared death. Novalyne could have saved him- that sounds a little like love conquers all. But maybe it’s true; when their relationship broke up, Howard was doomed. He had no other life, only the one that had chained him down for so long, and plunged him into despair, with seemingly only one way out.
It is a fascinating story, and one that Blood & Thunder tells fairly well. Its just not the authoritative, definitive telling I would have hoped it to be. No doubt one that fans will enjoy- impartial readers may well wonder what the fuss is about, or where all the Blood & Thunder went.