Sunday, February 03, 2008

Blood and thunder

In the afterword for Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, author Mark Finn writes, "As the author of the first full-length biography of Robert E. Howard in over twenty years, it is inevitable that I would have to refute some of the assertations laid down in L. Sprague de Camp's book, Dark Valley Destiny. I have tried to do this without undue malice, for de Camp was a Yankee and quite frankly didn't know no better... No one has ever attempted to incorporate Texas history into the life and times of Robert E. Howard. Doing this give a different picture than the ones previously offered. As a lifelong Texan myself, it just felt right to do it that way."

Ordinarily, I wouldn't quote from the afterword, which should cap off a book, but this seems as fine and introduction to what Finn's book as I can imagine, not to dismiss the fine words offered by Joe R. Lansdale in the book's introduction.

I discovered Robert E. Howard in my pre-teen years, at the tail end of the so-called Howard Boom. Like most others, I discovered Howard's work through Conan generally and the Marvel Comics specifically, especially the delightful newstand Savage Sword of Conan as well as a heap of love for the paperback covers painted by Frank Frazetta.

Even then, with Conan everywhere and various non-Conan books published, it was still a frustrating time to try to discover his work. Most of what was available was adulterated in one manner or other, most famously the rewritten Conan pastiches edited and largely written by L. Sprague de Camp, the aforementioned ignorant Yankee. But even the adulterated Howard was clearly more exciting and alive than the pastiche stories by de Camp, Lin Carter, etc. that inevitably accompanied them.

In that world, the benchmark of Howard biography was de Camp's Dark Valley Destiny, which is controversial, to say the least, among Howard readers, check out this review.

Luckily, the turn of the century, has brought about a change in the way Howard's writing is published. More and more is available presented respectfully in its original form, including a great many stories that had previously been ignored by publishers and difficult to find.

Finn has gone about also setting the standard for what a Howard biography should be in such a time. Readable and entertaining with a manner of looking at Howard and his world that makes sense and builds a picture of a real live human being. It also gives fresh insight into his work, making me want to go back and re-examine it, and in a few cases, such as Sword Woman, examine it for the first time. What else could one ask of a literary biography?

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