Volume I, Number 4, December 2002
Robert E. Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association
E-journal by Josep Parache
"My empire is of the imagination", H. R. Haggard
© 2002 by Josep Parache. All rights reserved.
Imitation and the limits of criticism (I)
"All this dreary noise and prattle"
R. E. Howard
Works by several scholars have sufficiently proven in what way the pastiches and the continuations of Robert E. Howard‚s work did not just lengthen the Conan‚s saga, but, because they were not distinguished from the original stories, which should only have been considered as the archetype, they have merged into the original model and they have modified and altered the concept which Howard had of his work. As an inevitable consequence the pastiches have also negatively affected the reception of the Howardian corpus by the reader and the critic alike. It is in this sense that the book edited by Alberto Santos, Conan: guía de la era hiboria (1), published in 1996, is a good chance to analyze the ways in which the acceptance of the Lancer/Ace 12-volume set as a canonical work, and, therefore, the acceptance of the concept of pastiche, has affected, and is still affecting, the critical works that emerge from this corrupt material.
In 1983 J. M. Lalanda wrote the first book on Howard in Spain, La cancion de las espadas (2). Even though the book endeavors to present Howard as a serious author, some of the concepts upon which it is built (basically, the use of all the pastiches and the excessive centrality of Conan) have been increasingly called into question. As a consequence it has not stood well the test of time and, except in two or three chapters, at present day it has but a merely archeological value. In the case of the book by Lalanda, however, some of its erroneous points of view could be pardoned if we bear in mind the fact that it was a pioneering book. As a matter of fact, it is not surprising that in the arid desert of the eighties Spanish fantasy criticism the book was fairly well received and that it even acquired a certain renown among the genre enthusiasts.
Hence, when 13 years afterwards the editor Alberto Santos publishes a new book on Conan, one would at the very least expect that they have learnt from the errors (but also from the positive aspects) of the past; one would expect that in 13 years the critical vision of Howard has matured and that new perspectives on his work are presented; and finally one would expect that a new book on Conan incorporates and takes into account, if not all of them, at least the most important and/or innovative contributions of scholarship. One would expect all this. However, Santos‚s book not only insists on and increases the flaws which could be found in Lalanda‚s book, but it has neither any of its virtues nor any of its mitigating circumstances.
The very title places us from the very beginning in the realm of the imitators, Conan: guía de la era hiboria (3). It is not a work on the character created by Howard, since the group formed by the Howardian stories, the literary pastiches, and the comic-books and the films based on the character is considered an indivisible whole. The book opens with the chapter "On the jeweled thrones of the Earth. The mysteries of destiny in a barbarian's life", which is based on "A Probable Outline of Conan‚s Career" by P. Schuyler Miller i John D. Clark, and accepts as events in the life of the Cimmerian the data from all of the literary pastiches until 1996, the date of publication of the book. As it has already been argued more that once (4), such a large amount of different adventures adds an element of implausibility to the character. One wonders how it was possible that Conan did not die from exhaustion after performing so many violent and erotic feats and how it was possible for him to live until the age of 60, which is the age he is supposed to be when Conan of the Isles (5) begins.
The next chapter, "A guide to the Hyborian world", is the actual gazetteer that we are promised in the book title. We are presented in alphabetical order with the names of characters, gods, places and peoples that appear in the Conan stories, both the ones written by Howard and by his imitators. It seems to be based on The Gazetteer of the Hyborian World of Conan by Lee N. Falconer (although in the foreword Santos mistakenly attributes it to de Camp). Even though it is a trifle inconsistent in some entries (some times we are told the real etymological origin of the words and some times we are not; some times they list all the stories where the word in question is mentioned and some times only some), this kind of list might be useful as a reference material. Actually, when the entries are read one after another, one cannot help feeling fascinated by the sonority of the fantastic nouns that are presented: A-Abdasktarth, Aberius, Abimael, Abombi, Abuletes, Acralidus, Acheron, Achilea... B-Baal, Baal-Pteor, Babur, Badb, Bajujh, Bakalah, Bakhariot, Bakhr... Maybe pure poetry is that.
Therefore, the concepts of imitation and pastiche not only determine the very conception of the book, but also its several individual parts. This is evident again in the biographical sketch of Howard which is then presented to us. The information comes from a letter by E. H. Price to H. P. Lovecraft (25 June 1936) and from "The Miscast Barbarian" and the "Memories of R.E.H.", these two last works by de Camp and the foundation of his later book-length biography, Dark Valley Destiny. The authors do not seem to know or they have not been able to use the biography which de Camp published in 1983. The biographical works on Howard which de Camp produced have generated a considerable polemic among some quarters of the Howardian scholarship, so that some of the statements asserted by de Camp have been called into question and are under revision (6). The author of this essay is not an expert in the life of Howard and, therefore, until the promised biography by Rusty Burke comes out, he refrains from giving his opinion. Here what is interesting to point out is that, whether right or wrong, the points of view which de Camp presents in his biography are being perpetuated among Howard's readers. As an example of this, notice some of the sentences and paragraphs which have been written by Herranz in this biographical chapter:
"Little Robert, at the age of twelve, was a quiet, calm, shy boy, who preferred the company of books and his mother instead of that of the boys his age. This excessive attachment to his mother would have fatal consequences some years later, and his shyness made him the target of the savage mockery and the beatings of the young bullies" (p. 117)
"This exaggeration in the opinion of his environment (itself very hostile) would be, in adulthood, the cause of his many mental disorders and obsessions, such as shadow-boxing or carrying his trouser hems too high in order to enjoy more freedom of movement in case his life were in danger." (p. 118)
"Robert E. Howard continued to be a lonely youngster, who only mixed with his idolized mother, his dog Patches and, in a lesser way, his father." (ib.)
"he was always a loner; another exile like Lovecraft, a king when he dreamed his tremendous and bloody dreams and a beggar when he became lost in his bitter thoughts." (ib.)
"In 1930 his old dog Patches left him forever, and that was such a blow for him that he seriously contemplated joining him; because of that his parents decided to send him to Brownwood again, this time on holidays." (p. 123)
"In the time which separates 1930 and the date of his death, R. E. Howard began to show a certain interest --even though slight and doubtful-- for female company, which his possessive mother ended up thwarting. The reason why a man of proven heterosexual tendencies started having relations of this kind nearly a decade later than the other young people do, seems to be due to an odd inner tendency to ignore this vital need which is shared by all human beings." (p. 124)
"Those childhood ghosts, which manifested themselves in his adolescence in the form of sleepwalking and other disorders, only worsened his mental health in adulthood in the form of a persecution mania. So he had his clothing altered [∑] so that it did not be in his way if he ever had to fight for his life and he began carrying a Colt .38 automatic, the preferred weapon from his collection." (ib.)
These statements clearly come from the two texts by de Camp mentioned before, in some cases almost literally:
"As a boy, Robert Howard was puny and bookish. To judge from his later attitudes and behavior, he must have started life, as have H.P. Lovecraft and many other writers, with a personality of the schizoid type [∑]. When such an introverted personality is combined with a puny body and bookish tastes, the individual is a natural butt of bullies. For such an unfortunate, boy life is a jungle, with the schizoid playing the rôle of rabbit. Every day is a series of terrifying encounters with slavering monsters and Inquisitorial tortures." (de Camp 1976: 136)
"When Howard‚s dog Patches ("Patch") died in 1930, Howard became so despondent that his parents, fearing that he would kill himself, sent him to Brownwood for a vacation." (ib.: 154)
"Robert Howard began to display paranoid delusions of persecution. He took to carrying a pistol against "enemies", who were probably imaginary--or who at most had once bullied or otherwise offended Howard but had long forgotten all about it. He owned several pistols, his favorite being a Colt .38 automatic." (ib.: 156)
However, for some reason, Herranz prefers not to use the polemical list of psychological problems with which de Camp, displaying a known and usual rhetorical strategy, finishes his "Memories of R.E.H." (de Camp 1979a: 98). The only other thing which could be highlighted in this chapter (7), on the other hand, is that they have wanted to avoid "the morbid details of his suicide"(p. 5):
"As for the details of his death, it is possible that more than one reader will be disappointed on realizing that they will be completely omitted in these lines. [∑] I prefer to remember him alive; after all does it make any sense to speak about an absence? He gave his characters enough of his own mind, longings and dreams so that his death does not at all affect the breath of immortality which he managed to breathe into his sons. And that, of everything that could be said about his life, is the most important." (p. 125)
In spite of the grandiloquent and emotional tone of this last quotation, we basically agree with it. After all what really matters are his works. However, the editor of the recently published The Conan Chronicles is as tasteless in the choice of the addressees of his dedications as he is in the blurb on the back cover, where, after a brief summary of Howard's biography, he reminds us, just in case we have forgotten, how he died: "Howard killed himself in June 1936, on learning that his beloved mother had slipped into a terminal coma". It is as if when speaking about the life of some other author one would say, for instance, that he died from a heart attack or that he had a moustache. One wonders about the real usefulness of such information for a better reading of the work of Howard, or of any other writer for that matter. Ezra Pound stated that since when we study the work of a physicist or a mathematician we are not usually interested in the events of their life, but we focus all our attention on their scientific achievements, maybe we should proceed in the same way when we are studying the work of a writer. Biographism has clear limits. Therefore, the only thing this chapter does is to reproduce the basic ideas from the biographical texts of de Camp. The transfer of these ideas from one publication to another throughout the years has not yet stopped as is shown by the fact that in the very moment we are writing these lines a well-known Spanish fanzine is publishing a translation in installments of Dark Valley Destiny aimed to a new generation of readers.