My REH Bookshelf Pt.1

Last week I received the three most recent Robert E Howard books from the REH Foundation Press, so I thought it timely to post some pictures of my Robert E Howard collection. I’ve been collecting REH books since 1978, and I think it is true to say that REH fans have never had it as good as they do now, thanks to the efforts of the folks at the REHFP. There is still, and always will be, a unique thrill to receiving a box from them postmarked from the post office at Cross Plains, Texas, a special place in Howard lore.

reh1So here’s my first photograph, and this is pretty much my collection from the last few years and it clearly demonstrates how much I have benefited from the REHFP. While many of these books contain stories I already owned in earlier books, they also contain a wealth of fragments and drafts, and informative essays. And of course they are handsomely collected in hardback format in very limited editions, usually only 200 copies. I can never figure out how REH fandom is so limited that these books don’t seem to sell-out. They aren’t cheap, but when I think back to the bad old days of buying paperbacks these are more that worth the investment, and will hopefully last the rest of this REH readers life.

Highlights are almost too numerous too mention. The Collected Poetry is a hugely important volume, and the Collected Letters also. If these were the only books that the REHFP had ever printed, that would have been more than enough to satisfy collectors. In all honesty though I adore all of these books and only wish I could make the time to properly re-read them all enough. I often think that if ever I manage to retire one day I will enjoy the fruits of my collecting by spending years reading and re-reading these volumes -I only hope I can keep my marbles in order to do so! But I’m certain in the meantime I’ll give it a good go whenever I have time- currently I’m reading through the Breckinridge Elkins books. At any rate, though their frequency of books is somewhat haphazard, I’m certain that the REHFP have yet more books in the pipeline.

One anecdote I must make- my copy of the Collected Poetry was actually delivered across town as the address hadn’t been written properly on the package. As it wasn’t tracked, I had no idea, but thankfully it was delivered to me by the recipient of the package who had subsequently managed to track me down. I don’t think I ever had opportunity to thank him enough, as I was quite bewildered when he turned up at my door late one summer evening with the box. I’m really not usually that lucky a person -the ghost of Howard was looking over me that night!

This second photograph is a sample of the REH volumes I’ve collected over the past few decades-

reh2Now this picture contains a few real finds that REH collectors out there will likely recognise and which will mean nothing at all to most everyone else, so please bear with me. First is The Last Celt, which I bought from Forbidden Planet back in, 1985 I think, on a rare trip down to London. I couldn’t really afford the book but I couldn’t resist it. Its a hugely influential book about REH, at one point the bible of REH collecting. Written and compiled by the late Glenn Lord, who was the most important REH fan there ever was, its a cornerstone of my collection. Glenn was kind enough to reply to an email from me many years ago.

Next along the shelf are, like The Last Celt,  a number of REH books from Donald M Grant, one of the most important publishers of REH material, certainly in the 1970s/1980s- the highlight of these is the rare Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, a semi-autobiographical novel by Howard. Another favourite from my collection is a book about Howard rather than one by him- a memoir by Novalyne Price Ellis titled One Who Walked Alone. She was a friend of Howard and was the only girl he ever dated or had any kind of relationship with, and as she had literary leanings herself, she kept journals and diaries of their times together. This book is a particularly candid, first-hand document about Howard and formed the basis of a later film. Remarkably vivid, reading this book is like stepping into a time machine and the closest one can get to meeting Howard.

Then we come upon the expensive section of my collection- back before the REHFP rescued Howard collectors, the British publisher Wandering Star instigated an ultimately too-ambitious project of luxury limited editions. The books proved a contentious issue in REH fandom, but I well remember my thrill back when they first came out and I’m grateful to everyone involved in the (ultimately abortive) project. Having had to put up with cheap paperbacks and those old second-hand Donald M Grant editions that I could get hold of, new, luxury hardbacks of curated Howard material were a godsend. I remember picking up a flyer in Forbidden Planet announcing the three-volume Conan books. It was like winning some kind of lottery, it was so exciting! The first Wandering Star book was the Solomon Kane book, lavishly illustrated and bound, complete in slipcase with prints and a cd of some recited Kane material.  I bought that from the old Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham- it was an expensive purchase but I never regretted it.

Further along the shelf you will see my copy of the Neville Spearman edition of Skull-Face Omnibus. In the history of REH publishing, this is one of the important volumes, originally published in 1946 by Arkham House. Dating from 1975, I bought this copy of the Neville Spearman edition from Andromeda Bookshop in 1983. Although I had bought some Conan paperbacks years earlier, it was this book that truly sealed my fate regards collecting REH books. The typeface is so small just reading a paragraph now is enough to induce a major headache, but fortunately all the books material has since been reprinted elsewhere and more legibly.

A few more Donald M Grant editions follow, and L Sprague de Camp’s rather inflammatory biography of Howard that I bought for £8.75 in 1986 (I know, because I have the receipt slipped inside the book), back when I was deep into buying the many REH  paperbacks of the time. I don’t have any of those paperbacks at hand to display, as they are stored up in boxes in the loft- but there were lots of them.

Finally (for now) on the shelf are two deluxe reprint volumes of the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comics that pretty much started my whole affair with REH when I first read the weekly reprints here in the UK in 1975. So in a way they bring things full circle.

I have some other REH books I haven’t photographed here -the Bison books from several years ago, the Del Rey books based on unpublished Wandering Star volumes, the aforementioned paperback pile from the 1970s-1980s boxed away and several volumes of critical works about Howard’s work, as well as a number of comic collections from Dark Horse. Plenty there for an eventual Pt.2 indeed,  but what I have featured here is pretty much the bulk of my collection. I certainly don’t consider myself an hardcore REH collector but it has become something of a lengthy fascination that somehow defines me- any other REH collectors care to share details of their collections?

 

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Poledouris’ Triumphant Barbarian

barb1This CD cover here on the left must be one of the craziest, most unexpected releases I can imagine. Released a few weeks ago, its the majority of Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian score transcribed for organ. You know, like they play in churches- indeed this recording was made at Claremont United Church of Christ in California, so it has that authentic ‘sound’. Once you get used to it (and after thirty years listening to the score in orchestral form, yes it does take a little adjusting to), it is a remarkable sounding work. There’s something primal about it, as if the music is reduced to its most raw state, at times brutal but also warm, and often richly religious-sounding with the associations of hearing organs in churches. Its more successful than you might think, and for any fan of the score its a must. Listening to it I wonder what Poledouris, who sadly passed away in 2006, would have thought of it (I’d like to think he would have been absolutely thrilled). Then I consider the long road that led us here some thirty-plus years after the original film was released. Quality wins out, and that is never truer than with this music. Say what you may about the film, the score is a monumental piece of work, Poledouris’ masterpiece, and its wonderful to have seen the music get appreciated and revered separate from the film.

Back in late summer of 1982, I read an issue of Starlog that featured an interview with Basil Poledouris, composer of the score for John Milius’ film Conan The Barbarian. I’d been a reader of the Robert E Howard stories since the mid-seventies and while I wasn’t at that time a big fan of the movie, I was very curious about the score. It seemed to ‘fit’ the Conan I knew from the original stories perfectly, a monumental piece of work that I have always been convinced was one of the finest scores for any movie, ever (it was just a shame that the film didn’t match the music but subsequent viewings on VHS turned me into a fan of the film too).

Oh, but that music. I’ve always been a supporter of what Douglas Trumbull described as Pure Cinema, moments or sequences with minimal dialogue or exposition, in which visuals and the score tell the story. Conan The Barbarian was just that. “I wrote two hours of music for Conan,” Poledouris said in the Starlog interview; “It was always in John (Milius’) mind that Conan would be solid music – much like an opera, but without singing. Even the first three reels of the film is wall to wall music. From the first frame of reel one to the end of the Wheel of Pain sequence somewhere in the middle of reel three, is one long cue without any break.” More than that, dialogue during this first twenty minutes -barring a brief prologue between father and son describing the Riddle of Steel- is non-existent; it’s just the music and the visuals telling the story.

Handicapping this however was a deeply flawed decision by the film-makers to release the film in mono only. Looking back on it, it seems a crazy decision to make, especially in these times of home cinema systems, but back then televisions were square and mono, and home video undreamed of- films had limited lifetimes in cinemas before being consigned to network airings years later and cinemas themselves were hardly -in the main- the surround sound auditoriums they are today.

But still, it does seem short-sighted and clearly impacted the movie. Here’s a big movie with huge sets and a (literally) huge imposing star, accompanied by this massive score that serves film and story in purely cinematic terms, and you hamper it with a mono soundtrack just to save some of the budget (which presumably ran over). Poledouris commented about this in the Starlog interview: “I think its a crime that with a movie of this size that the soundtrack doesn’t come close to what Milius has on the screen. the monophonic optical track does the picture no service. For demonstration purposes, we mixed the first reel in stereo to show the producers what it should really sound like when all of a sudden those horsemen come charging through the snow. You really feel the terror of those hooves thundering through the snow with the drums and chants. The sound works on a gut level resurrecting primitive memories of fear”.

barb3The only way to hear any of that two-hour score in stereo was to buy the soundtrack album, which totalled 47 minutes of music. The soundtrack presentation was very good, including all of the main themes and highlights from the film. For some reason the only edition of the soundtrack that I could get was this version from Europe, a French import I believe, although it had Italian stickers on it if i recall correctly. I don’t think I ever saw a UK or American import at all. This was in those distant days of vinyl, and I damn near wore this sucker down. To save serious wear I recorded it onto cassette, placing the tracks into film order and played that over and over; it was really a soundtrack to my life back then, played in the background while doing my paintings during my A-level art days and playing fantasy RPGs with friends. Back then of course it would never occur to me that one day we might get a better, more complete release of the music.

A few years later the score would return, this time on CD, first on a Milan disc and later a slightly expanded Varese Sarabande release. At the time this was deemed the most complete release that would ever be possible, as the master tapes had been believed lost or destroyed. A complete and chronological release (C&C in filmscore geek parlance) of Conan would be the stuff of dreams for years, and of course, as the years went by, ever more unlikely.

barb2Poledouris himself was said to be disappointed with the performance and recording of the original score in Rome, and in the mid-nineties discussed with producer James Fitzpatrick the possibility of the composer having the opportunity to conduct a new re-recording of the score. At the time these plans didn’t come to fruition, and it wouldn’t be until 2010 that the full re-recording would become a reality- alas, some four years after Poledouris’ untimely passing. Fitzpatrick would do Poledouris proud, using the composer’s original manuscripts and a large orchestra accompanied by a 100-voice chorus to record the complete score. For fans of the score it was a dream come true, even though some would voice reservations. This was, essentially, the score as Poledouris had always intended it to be heard, but for some fans whose ears were used to the original, for all its faults, this re-recording sounded a little odd at times. I guess its in the nature of re-recordings. Deviate too far from the original and you get cries of heresy, stay too close and you question the point of a re-recording at all. But there was yet a twist in the tale of Basil Poledouris’ Conan.

maf7123Trays.inddShortly after the re-recording was released, rumours began to fly about the original master-tapes of the Conan scoring sessions finally being found after years of fruitless searches. Finally in 2012 Intrada records presented its definitive Conan The Barbarian set; a three-disc epic that encompassed everything any fan could have hoped for over all those years. Two discs of the original, complete score recording, supplemented with never-before-heard alternates and a remastered edition of the original 1982 album on the third disc to preserve Poledouris’ original album presentation of the score. Maybe it gives some hope to those of us still waiting for a complete release of Vangelis’ original Blade Runner.

So here we are. Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian is surely utterly triumphant after all these years, with a stature far above that of the actual movie and enjoying a life all its own. Philipp Pelster’s rendition of the score on organ just further cements this position and breathes fresh life of its own to the score. It is fascinating, really, to hear a track like “Anvil of Crom” on the Intrada album and compare it to Pelster’s version. “Orphans of Doom/Awakening”, always one of my favorite moments of the score, is particularly spine-tingling on the Pelster album. Then we have the Fitzpatrick/Nic Raine re-recording with its huge orchestra to compare to both. Fans have never had it so good, and the score for the barbarian remains as valid and powerful as it did all those years ago. I don’t know how many times I have listened to this score, but I’m certain I will continue to do so for many years to come, in all its guises (who would ever guessed I would ever have such choice in that regard?). They don’t score ’em like they used to, and the loss of Poledouris remains to film music as great as ever. I’m sure we won’t hear his like again. But we do have his Conan The Barbarian.

Swords of the North

Swords-smLast Monday the latest book from the REHF arrived in the post, all the way from Cross Plains, Texas*. Titled Swords of the North, its a collection of Robert E. Howard’s Celtic/Viking adventure stories, including his ‘past lives’ stories wherein the characters recount adventures they lived in long-forgotten distant ages. Great adventure writing, and full of the tragic pessimism that is at the core of much of Howard’s writing. I’ve read many, if not all, of these stories before of course over the years in various collections but this book is surely definitive and a welcome opportunity to re-read them in one handsome hardback volume.

The past several years have been quite special with the REHF producing so many excellent Howard books, including collections of his letters and poetry. For a Howard fan its been a wonderful chance to collect definitive editions of his stories, and of course his letters and poetry have been the proverbial icing on the cake. The Foundation has done a fantastic job. Years ago all of this seemed impossible, and I often look at the REH books on my bookshelf and have a ‘pinch me I must be dreaming’ moment.

This book also arrived at just the right time, because I’ve just FINALLY finished reading Game of Thrones. That damn thing took over six months (looks like I’m two, maybe three seasons ahead of the HBO series now, with two books yet to come if ever the author gets around to completing them). I’ll be a little contentious here; I think I prefer the HBO series to the books. Its strange, some of the ‘big’, emotional moments in the series would, I thought, have been better in the books, but its seems that George R R Martin put his emphasis elsewhere, to other beats and characters and moments. The HBO series certainly seems more focused, which is inevitable really for such a huge sprawling saga, but I must say, having now read the books, I think the makers of the HBO series have done a remarkable job of tackling something I would have considered almost unfilmable. I suspect the series and books will begin to diverge from one another though, and it does look increasingly likely that the series will catch up and pass the books**.

So anyway, yes I can get back to reading Bob Howard (got a backlog of the last few REHF books to get through) and Philip K Dick (books 4 & 5 of the collected short stories have been waiting patiently), and there’s a few Stephen King novels that I have on the shelf too. I do wonder if I can get any movies watched at all if I do get into all this reading. Game of Thrones (I read all the books in one marathon run-through, having never read them before) created something of a backlog, taking much longer to read than I expected (had them on a kindle, which rather disguised what I was getting into), and no doubt had some impact on how many films I got to see last year. There’s only so many hours in the day, after all.

 

 

 

*I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing that ‘Cross Plains,Texas’ postmark on the boxes that the books arrive in. Ever since I was a teenager reading Robert E Howard books in the mid-seventies, Cross Plains,Texas is a place has had a strange and mystical aura. A place I’d love to visit someday (looking less likely every year, but you never know….).

**Which raises the possibility of the stories having two completely different endings, doesn’t it?

Twins of Evil (1971)

Twins Of Evil is the third of a series of films loosely inspired by the vampire novella ‘Carmilla’ by J.Sheridan LeFanu. It’s your typical Hammer ‘heaving breasts’ movie, demonstrative of the continuing falling fortunes  for the studio as it tried to maintain relevance in changing times by injecting more sex into its films. It is indeed interesting to see how relaxing censorship rules and public tastes reflected on Hammer films from the classics Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula to later fodder such as this.

Twins of Evil‘s titular characters were played by Madeleine and Mary Collinson, who had earlier received the distinction of being Playboys first centerfold twins. Hardly averse from baring their flesh, the girls would take every opportunity to lean forward displaying their proud bosoms to the movie audience. That’s not to denigrate the quality of their performances; each of them do quite well in the film, but its nevertheless clear they knew what they were being hired for and its clear they relished the opportunity to have fun with it.

toe_poster_02But while on the surface its certainly a dumb, lesser-Hammer movie, dating from the era of its remorseless decline,  it does have much going for it. The film looks impressive, indeed remarkably atmospheric with some rich photography and framing by Dick Bush- some shots are quite arresting, moodily and exquisitely lit. Even on a poor tv transmission quality image on the Horror channel, some shots looked quite amazing.

Twins of Evil also has a story more layered and interesting than you might expect. Certainly there’s plenty of subtext here for ‘readings’ of the film beyond its generally-accepted reputation for being a Hammer Cleavage Potboiler. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, a group of puritan zealots called ‘The Brotherhood’, led by the fanatical Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing) terrorises the area by seizing any young woman that takes their fancy and promptly burning her for witchcraft. The men evidently equate sexuality with the Devil, and anyone who questions them is believed to be in league with Satan.  Into Gustav’s home arrive two orphaned nieces, Frieda and Maria Gellhorn who Gustav greets with  stern disapproval- they are young, wanton spirits,  provocatively dressed and to him clearly corrupted by the  ‘outside’ world.toe2 As it turns out, Gustav isn’t far wrong- Maria is an innocent virginal ‘good’ girl, but Frieda is clearly all too willing to be corrupted by any man game enough- and fortunately there is just such a guy up in the Castle yonder.

Local aristocrat Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), who lives in a foreboding Castle overlooking the village, is a satanic acolyte looking for darker and darker thrills as he despoils local girls,  finally culminating in a human sacrifice, which summons his evil ancestor Mircalla from the dead. Karnstein cements the loss of his soul to Satan by bedding the wraith, who in return grants him the powers of the  undead by vampirizing him. The Count intends to continue the Devil’s work with gusto, turning his attention to seducing  Frieda. Excited by the Count’s attention, this ‘bad’ twin willingly becomes his vampire bride. Sex again equals death. Or, as it is here, undeath.

It’s inevitable that the best thing about the film itoe1s the magnificent performance of Peter Cushing as the twisted puritan Gustav. But I’m likely biased, as I’d pay to watch a film of Cushing playing Scrabble, I think he was that good an actor. Regards this film in particular though, I’ve always thought that Cushing was the perfect actor to play Bob Howard’s hero Solomon Kane,  and never has that been more clearly evident than in this movie- its as if Cushing is channelling the icy coldness of Howard’s Kane here, particularly when he becomes conflicted and doubts his actions.   Alas, if only the world had been different, that Hammer might have shot a Solomon Kane movie back in the mid-sixties (of course, I doubt anyone at Hammer had even heard of the Texan’s fantasy series back then). Cushing is note-perfect here, his performance as usual very complex yet looking effortless. As an actor he deserved films leagues beyond the quality of this one.  One further note- I read with interest that this film was the first part he took following the death of his beloved wife Helen, the loss of whom is well-known to have devastated the actor. How much is that grief and loss in those agonised eyes and haunted character?

There are some genuinely shocking moments in this movie, particularly one where Gustav leaps upon his evil vampire niece and decapitates her without warning as she attempts to flee the castle at film’s end. It’s a reminder of how good Hammer could be when suddenly shifting gears into moments of savage horror.  Of course its restrained compared to all the gore and graphic detail horror films have now, but the power of it is how sudden, untelegraphed it is, how it is suddenly cut (sic) into the film. Gustav seems to come out of nowhere like a vicious force of nature. And of course, he’s the nominal ‘good-guy’ even though he has burnt several innocent girls at the stake.

Not that the film is anything near perfect- despite its finer moments, much of it is unintentionally  hilarious, reminding me somehow of stuff like Lifeforce as the horror slips into self-parody and comedy. Gustav and his band of merry zealots ride around all night to  bizarre Western Music From Some Other Movie as they round up poor girls for burning. Maria’s love-interest is a music teacher who writes as agonisedly bad a lovesong as you will ever hear. Near the film’s end when Karnstein’s black mute servant spots the villagers about to attack the castle,  he attempts to warn his master through some strange game of  ‘Give Us A Clue’ that has to be seen to be believed.

But on the whole this is a pretty good Hammer movie- certainly better than I had expected.  As I have noted, I watched this on tv on the Horror Channel, so can only imagine how good it would be to see it on blu-ray. Unfortunately the only HD release I am aware of is a Region A-locked edition in the US. Perhaps someone will have the wisdom to release it over here someday. It deserves to be.

From Beyond (1986)

I have only seen From Beyond once before- back in the ‘eighties on VHS rental. At that time, I didn’t care for it at all- back then I was in the midst of devouring pretty much of all of Lovecraft’s tales, having brought them in paperback omnibus form, and the 1920 tale From Beyond was instantly one of my favourites. It’s a very short tale, hardly eight pages, but I’ll never forget putting it down after finishing it and looking around me with fresh, cautious eyes. I remember back then I used to sit down after midnight when everyone else in the house and gone to bed, I have an hour reading whatever book I was reading at the time, which, at that time, would likely be a Robert E Howard story or H P Lovecraft story.  The lonely silence in which I turned the pages of those magnificent stories is something I recall fondly, and the very nature and subject of From Beyond lent its finale a haunting quality as I sat alone in the silence, looking at the room around me differently. I’ll never forget that.

There is something quite unique and rather disturbing about much of Lovecraft’s best work, but there was something about transferring the period tales to the  modern-day to serve the demands of cinema audiences (for both Re-Animator and From Beyond and pretty much every other film adaptation since) that really struck me as just plain wrong. I think this was mostly because, at that time,  I was still reading them all, was still stuck in that 1920s/1930s world of horror  (and indeed to this day I think that the only ‘proper’ way to make a definitive and honest Lovecraft film is to keep it in the period of the original stories), but I have mellowed regards the budget and marketing difficulties inherent in such an approach. I quite enjoyed Dagon, for example, and would cite that as one of the best film adaptations of Lovecraft, even though like so many others it takes some particular liberties transferring the tales to the modern world. But anyway, what I’m saying is that, if I had watched Dagon back when I first saw Re-Animator and The Beyond, I’d have hated that too.

The fact is, Lovecraft’s work, the whole  science-fiction/gothic horror hybrid only really works when its set in the time and world in which the stories were created. It’s a black and white, film-noir world, one without mobile phones or the  internet. Its a nightmare world quite alien to what we live in now. Characters behave in a different way to how contemporary characters would; they believe in different things, society is different, and the world in which they inhabit is a world is still unknown and strange. They have not seen the Earth from space, its furthest corners and nooks mapped and photographed. Lost alien mountain cities could still be buried under Antarctic ice or hidden beneath the waves.

So a film set in modern times has to be rather loosely based on a Lovecraft tale as opposed to being utterly faithful. In that respect it has to be considered a largely pointless endeavour.  Anyway, that said, I guess there is no way a modern-day big-budget A’list director will ever be able to make a period-set faithful horror film based on a HPL story. So we are where we are.

FrombeyondFrom Beyond has just been re-released in uncut form on Blu-ray, and watching it again I have to say I rather enjoyed it. I must be mellowing in my middle age, or setting my expectations lower than I used to. But it was actually quite fun.  There isn’t much of the original story here (it generally tells the Lovecraft story in a pre-credit sequence) as in order to stretch the 8-page tale into an eighty-minute movie demands liberties regards going off on its own journey. But there is plenty going for it, mostly in how much the film reflects its own period of ‘manufacture’; you know, the whole ‘eighties horror thing with physical effects and gore and everything. Its as much a child of its time as the HPL tale was of the early 20th Century. It harks back to the gruesome charms of Carpenter’s The Thing, and of b-movie actors and video-nasties. It isn’t at all scary, but it is strangely fun, and every frame screams ‘Cult’ at you- Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton are magnificent b-movie actors in b-movie sets, with Richard Band’s synth score evoking the age just as much as the hokey matt shots. How many adolescent males got their minds fevered by the shots of Barbara Crampton suffering sexual degradation at the gooey fingers of it’s twisted deviant monster?

From Beyond is nasty. It’s messy. It’s The Thing mixed up with Videodrome, but not as intense as either. Deformed body parts twisting and contorting into horrible parodies of nature, buried in gore and slime. The main monster is bad enough, but when another starts eating victims brains -usually by sucking them out through the victims eye socket- well the film reaches for levels of grossness that is fairly hardcore. The price of all this OTT visual depravity is a lack of genuine horror or scares, something that is a betrayal, frankly, of the source material. But nonetheless it is a fascinating combination of horror and science fiction unique to Lovecraft and has to be commended for that. Certainly a better film than I had remembered it.

HPLHS’ The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

dart-cdw-CoverFresh from the wonderful H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society comes their latest Dark Adventure Radio Theatre offering, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. These Dark Adventure Radio Theatre works are made in the style of period radio shows,  mock radio dramatisations of Lovecraft stories that are more faithful and authentic than any film likely could be. Being an audio drama the huge scale afforded by the listener’s imagination presents something only a hugely budgeted film could manage- and obviously no big- budget movie would ever be so faithful to the source. So in many ways these are the nearest thing to the ‘real deal’. I only wish someone in REH fandom could work on such radio dramas of some of Howard’s classics, because these HPL dramas are really something special.

The HPLHS have created six radio dramas so far, this latest one being their most ambitious yet. The earlier stories adapted were At The Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Out of Time and The Call of Cthulhu. I believe Herbert West -Reanimator will be next, and I sincerely hope that others will follow beyond that. They are available as mp3 downloads or on CD for us older folks from the HPLHS website (although mp3 may be the smarter option, as my CD package got the attention of Customs which landed me with an extra bill to pay this time around). The advantage of going the CD route is that they have great artwork and superbly-crafted ‘props’ to accompany each story, usually letters or newspaper clippings.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is possibly my personal favourite Lovecraft tale so this offering is wonderful stuff- spread across two CDs it runs for nearly two and a half hours in order to properly tell what was, if I recall correctly, Lovecraft’s longest story. Strangely, Lovecraft didn’t rate the story at all and I don’t believe it was even ever published during his lifetime, but to me it is the definitive Lovecraft tale and would surely make a fantastic film if only someone could do it justice as a serious movie. Its a thrilling mystery with truly chilling moments of horror, in which Charles Dexter Ward, a character closely modelled on Lovecraft himself, becomes consumed by the dark horror hidden in his family history.  You can see a trailer for the drama here-

Robert E. Howard & Patches

The recent loss of my dog, as traumatic as it has been, has turned my thoughts towards Texan author Bob Howard and the story of when he lost his own dog, a part Walker foxhound/part collie who he named Patches (sometimes the dog would be referred to as ‘Patch’). Bob raised the dog from a puppy and the two were inseparable companions for some twelve years (there’s another weird irony of fate- Patch quite likely passed away at the same age as our Barney did, if later recollections of the event are correct). The story has it that as Patch grew old  and sickened to die, Bob left town and did not return home until the dog had passed away and been buried. When he returned, Bob only remarked on his dog once, when he queried his mother as to where Patch had been buried. The story has been discussed and debated by Howard historians over the many years since Bob’s own death (at his own hands prior to the imminent death of his mother). His inability to deal with the death of Patch, and how he later reacted to his mothers passing, have obviously been linked and debated.

rehWithPatch

For my part, fan as I have been for most of my life of the writings of Bob Howard, the story of his short life has always been fascinating, and like many I have often pondered on how he reacted to the death of his dog. Initially there was the inevitable thought that it was only a dog, that it seemed a strange thing to do, just get out of town like that and leave his pet. But of course, back then when I thought that, I didn’t have a dog of my own. Having lived with a dog some twelve years with all the companionship and everything that that entails, I obviously now appreciate the pain that Bob was going through as Patch sickened to die. In a way, I now feel closer to Bob Howard, the man,  than I did even a few months ago, and I appreciate also how his reaction, leaving the dog, infers some indication of how Bob reacted to such painful situations.  ‘Leaving’ the dog- some would rather refer to it  in stronger terms, as deserting the dog.

On Thursday when we knew Barney was very ill and we arranged to take him to the vets, it was pressing on us how it would likely be one last, final trip. I finished work early and drove home dreading what was coming. When I got home, Barney was in the kitchen, lying in his bed, which was something he never did. It was as clear an indication to me as anything  just how ill he was. I sat down on the floor next to him for some twenty, precious minutes, aware that as the clock turned close to five pm I would have to pick him up and take him out to my car. Obviously I was terrifically upset. I kept glancing at my watch, wishing time to slow down, stop, anything other than reach the fateful time we would have to leave. “I don’t want to take him,” I told Claire. “I know we have to go, but…”

But we did, and things turned out the way we expected, albeit not exactly- a cruel twist of fate yet awaited us, as Barney would pass away in my car on the way back from the vets, after we had been given a cruel false hope. But it occurred to me, even as I sat on that kitchen floor next to Barney, that Bob Howard had obviously felt the same terrible pain and anguish as I was feeling. Bob however couldn’t see things through. He got out of town. I could never do that with my Barney, I owed him that, I had to do what was right for him, and stay with him to whatever terrible end was ahead. Even while I can appreciate the pain Bob was going through, I think he was very wrong to abandon his close companion, leaving his own parents to deal with it. Bob was twenty-two years old; Patches death was obviously a major blow, but his reaction to just flee from it rather than deal with it, live with it, speaks volumes of how he saw suicide as the only option at his mothers imminent death some years later.

On Friday, we buried Barney in our back garden, where he spent so much time in his younger days playing fetch with his ball or just roaming around, taking the air. I think burying him was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Bob couldn’t manage that. Had he been able to stay with Patch, take care of him later on regards his burial, would he later have the life-experience and strength to better deal with his mothers death?

Was he weaker than me, for not being able to stay with Patch at that desperate time? I don’t know. But yes, I think there is a clue to his psyche, his character and his eventual suicide, by how he dealt with the loss of his dog. I mean no criticism of Bob- he did what he simply felt he had to do when he realised Patch was soon to die. We all deal with death and the loss of loved ones in different ways. We cannot judge Bob Howard, only try to understand him. We cannot truly ‘know’ someone who lived and died some seventy years ago. But it is inevitable that we try, particularly when, as I have, we have read his stories for so many years.

Scholars have often concluded that Bob was subject to his upbringing and how sheltered he was by his parents from some of the harsher realities of life. The curious thing about it all, is that Bob at twenty-two had lived through Texan Oil booms, had experienced much death and violence. His father was a town doctor, and Texan Oil towns could be hard and bloody at times, desperate places to spend a childhood. Bob’s stories are full of violence and gore and horror, and yet he was evidently hyper-sensitive, unable to cope with realities harshest truths, such as the death of his dog. The contradictions of Bob Howard are endlessly fascinating.

More Blood & Thunder

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.

“Almuric” by Robert E Howard

“Esau Cairn left the planet of his birth, for a world swimming afar in space, alien, aloof, strange.”

In the body of work written by REH, Almuric, republished here in another fine REHFP hardback edition,  stands out as being one of his very few novel-length works and also for its pulp sci-fi theme, as compared to his generally fantasy/western/boxing-orientated work.  Inspired by the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of John Carter on Mars, it’s clearly an attempt by REH to break into a new market. Written during 1936, it is, frankly, one of his lesser works, as REH is clearly distracted by real-world events that would lead to his suicide. His relationship with Novalyne Price had finally come to its long drawn-out end, and his terminally-ill mother was nearing her last days. Indeed the story remained unfinished (completed, it is believed,  by Otto Binder, a friend of Howard’s agent Otis Kline,  following REH’s death and serialised in Weird Tales in 1939).  One can only imagine what it might have been, had the REH who wrote with the lush wordcraft of The Shadow Kingdom or the better Conan tales produced it instead. As it is, it’s a fine, rip-roaring adventure with plenty of action but it lacks the craft of his better work, both in the grammar and detail, and in the general world-building. Considering everything going on at the time though, its a miracle he managed anything of this quality at all.

Even second-rate REH is better than most, though. It’s just unfortunate that it’s clearly a great piece limited by it being written in that nightmare period near the end of Howard’s life when he just couldn’t devote sufficient time and care on it. Much of the action and sweeping rush of the tale carries the old REH hallmark, and there is plenty of REH himself in the hero of the piece, Esau Cairn. Here is a man born out of time, who doesn’t belong in our modern world, who is transported to the far-off world Almuric where he finds life, harsh and dangerous as it is, more suited to him. There are echoes here of REH himself, disenfranchised from the general populace of Cross Plains, Texas, where he lived something of an outcast, an oddball.  Is there wish-fulfillment here in the life Cairn finds on Almuric, where he finds a beautiful mate, kinship with a savage but noble people? Is it more than just a simple story for a new market, more one final fantasy of escape when his life was dragging him down into suicidal thoughts? It’s a fascinating subtext to the story.

Alas, with the reality of life rushing blackly over him, REH couldn’t write with his genuine skill and poetic landscapes of his best  prose. Some of it is atually painful- the evil winged creatures the Yaga dwell in a black citadel of Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the river Yogh, in the land of Yagg, creatured ruled by an evil queen named Yasmeena. It’s clearly rushed, lazily-thought out. It just needs another draft or the attention to wordcraft of his better work. In the hands of someone like Clark Ashton Smith, say, it might have even soared.  But taking into account what was happening to REH in 1936, its understandable. I actually enjoyed it, re-reading it again so many years after buying a slim second-hand paperback copy that languishes in my loft somewhere. It left me feeling a little sad, considering how its failings likely indicated REH’s state of mind and his life at the time he attempted it. Had he lived and properly finished it, tided it up, it might have been a great book and the start of another series of REH stories. Because more than anything else, I would have loved to see REH tell of more adventures of Esau Cairn, I would have loved to read them.

“Graveyard Rats” by Robert E.Howard

Weird Tales, for all REH’s popularity with readers and the quality of his ground-breaking fiction, was poor at paying what was due. After his death in 1936, Weird Tales still owed Howard’s estate over a thousand dollars – which in those days was a tidy sum. Frustrated at earnestly writing some of his best work for that pulp magazine (his groundbreaking Conan tales among them), by 1934 Howard felt forced to look at other markets for his work, markets that would pay what was due in more timely fashion. This would entail attempting to work in new genres, and not all  such experiments would prove fruitful.  “Lately I’ve been trying to write detective yarns, something entirely new for me, and haven’t had much success, ” Howard wrote in a letter to H.P.Lovecraft in late 1933.  Howard was refering to his tales of Private Detective Steve Harrison, hard-boiled crime fiction tales. Four of nine Steve Harrison tales would eventually sell, but Howard himself felt that it was a struggle from the start. “I have defintely abandoned the detective field,” he later told Lovecraft in a 1936 letter. “I can scarcely endure to read one, much less write one” he added. 

It would be easy to dismiss Howard’s crime fiction as an understandable failure- afterall, this was the guy whose fantastic fiction, horror tales and heroic fantasy is what he is most famous for, and would on the evidence of those stories  hardly seem suited to writing crime stories.  But the hard-boiled detective stories that were popularised by Dashiell Hammett and company were not that far removed from Howard’s fantasy and serious westerns in style and atitude. Howard has been referred to before as being a ‘Hard-boiled Heroic Fantasist’. So Howard and crime fiction is not neccesarily the ill-fit that might be expected.

Graveyard Rats, which I read last night, was the last of the four Steve Harrison stories to be sold during Howard’s lifetime. There’s not much detecting but plenty of mood, action and horror in this tale, and while it can be seen to be an awkward fit for Howard, it nevertheless has some worth. Some of the imagery seems more Lovecraft than Hammett, with severed heads, vicious hordes of corpse-devouring rats, lightning-lit graveyards and a house and villain consumed by an inferno at the tales blood-soaked conclusion.

The story begins with Harrison embroiled in a hill-country feud (very REH) between the Wilkinsons and Middletons. The last of the Middleton’s, Joel,  has killed one of the four Wilkinson brothers a few days before and Harrison has been hired to hunt down Middleton before he can fulfill his pledge to kill the remaining brothers. One of the Wilkinson brothers, Saul,  awakens with a start in his room in the dead of night, convinced someone is about to kill him in the darkness, his shredded nerves rattled by the opened door to his room and the frantic scampering of a rat on the floor. Howard ably desribes the mad tension Saul feels as he searches the darkness convinced death is lurking in the blackness. Eventually he fumbles for the lamp and his hand, groping in the darkness, touches the hair on a human scalp. With a terrified shout he fumbles to light a match, and in the light of a  candle finds the severed head of his brother John, he who had been  buried just three days before. The sight blasts Sauls terrified brain and plunges him into madness. Harrison, awoken by Saul’s screams reaches the grisly scene and decides to examine John Wilkinson’s grave.  The graveyard scene, complete with a lightning storm and hundreds of corpse-eating rats, is pure REH; a vivid nightmare of tension, mystery and gritty action. 

Graveyard Rats seems more in common with Howard’s serious Westerns than hard-boiled detective fiction, but it’s dark, violent story is certainly gripping.  Yes, it feels like Howard is ill at ease and struggling some, and it’s certainly a lesser Howard tale when compared to his more accomplished historical crusades adventures and best fantasy/horror works. But even a lesser Howard tale is more than worthwhile, and the tale rushes by at breakneck pace. Some of the imagery is horrific and startling. It’s true- no-one could write a tale like this the way Howard could; a natural storyteller, even in a genre he struggled with.