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Monday, June 27, 2011

Barbarians At The Gates

Being An extended multi-part ramble

With lots of digressions and sidetracks
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Recommended Reading: Conan The Barbarian, by Robert E. Howard(accept no substitutes)Pretty much anything else by Robert E. Howard, with special attention to any introduction, which will invariably be by another author


(Or-- for those of you who just want to rent the video: The Whole Wide World, starring Vincent D'Onofrio as Robert Howard and Renee Zellweger as Novalyn Price)



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Just got back from Cross Plains, Texas. There is absolutely nothing in Cross Plains worth the five-hour drive it took to get there... except Conan the Barbarian, of course. Oh, and Black Vulmea, El Borak, Breckenridge Elkins, Sailor Steve Costigan, and a great many other two-fisted types of fellows. They all live there, y'see, and they come out to play on this of all weekends.



Y'see, Cross Plains was the home of Robert E. Howard. THIS guy:




Howard was arguably the King Of The Pulp Fiction Writers. He created Conan the Barbarian in the 1930s, while writing for a pulp magazine, Weird Tales, and Conan remains his most well-known literary creation. He created a great many other heroes, of course, and poured out a truly insane flood of fiction between 1924 and 1936, in addition to correspondence with other pulp writers, notably H. P. Lovecraft, that often reached an exchange of two or three LONG letters a week.





The folks of Cross Plains thought he was just as strange as suspenders on a snake. He couldn't hold down a real job to save his life -- utterly hated timeclocks and supervisors -- but starting in 1929, he started pulling down as much money writing as quite a few folks were making in the oil fields. He had to, y'see. His mother was tubercular, and he apparently paid quite a few of his parents' bills.





He was well known for his habit of loudly ranting his stories aloud as he typed them, occasionally leaping up from his typewriter to beat the hell out of some imaginary enemy, or hack at them with a sword he apparently kept on the wall nearby. In a little tiny town, where the only air conditioning was called "the window", such behavior is noticed.






In 1936, his career was taking off. He'd published in many of the major pulp markets of the day, he was accruing good notice, his income increased every year, he'd just closed a book deal with a British publisher, and his career was poised to take off like a rocket... and his mother entered her final coma. Robert's father, a doctor, knew she wasn't likely to survive more than a day or so, and that she would likely never wake up. Robert, upon hearing about this, went out back behind the house, sat in his car, and stuck a pistol in his ear and blew his brains out. He was thirty years old.




Yeah, I know. Weird guy, huh?




Sometimes, I think I know how he felt. I grew up in a little tiny dusty out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere cow town in Texas, too. I know that imagination is, in such places, considered at best frivolous and useless, and at worst, is considered a liability... marking one as an odd duck, a weirdo, the sort of fellow that it doesn't pay to get involved with. Einstein said that imagination was more important than knowledge -- you can get knowledge out of a book, but where do you get imagination if you haven't got any? Well, in little tiny oil-and-ranching towns in Texas, they get along without it, for the most part, and don't miss it much. In the town where I grew up, the main source of literature was the paperback rack at the local pharmacy, and three fourths of what you'd find there bore the names of Louis LaMour, Zane Grey, and Harlequin. That was pretty much what one read where I grew up... if one read anything at all.




I was an imaginative kid. Hell, until my teen years, I was lucky to have one foot on the ground at any given time, and not even that if there was a stiff breeze blowing. In any school today, you wouldn't have noticed me at all, but in this particular cow town in 1975, I was a weird kid indeed... and I wrote. Worked for the local paper all four years of high school, and even won a couple of awards for it.





...and during that time, I discovered Conan. The comics, first, of course, followed by the old Lancer paperbacks with those great Frank Frazetta covers. I was astonished to think that the guy who wrote them came from Texas, too... and in the 1930s? Yow. And he didn't write WESTERNS? Jeez. I thought EVERY writer from Texas wrote westerns... (well, actually, Robert Howard wrote westerns, too, but I didn't know that, then...)




...and then, he killed himself? Because his MOTHER was dying? Whatthehell? As a teenager, I couldn't decide if this was incredibly gothic and romantical, or if the Creator Of Conan The Barbarian was in fact just the biggest wuss since Casper Milquetoast....




...so I decided to go where the facts were.




I'd heard about Cross Plains via the Internet, a couple years ago, when Project Pride first got started. Turns out that the town had decided, back in the early nineties, to restore the old Howard home and turn it into a museum, and they started Project Pride as a sort of local charity to collect the money and organize the manpower. They have a web site, and advertised a local "Barbarian Festival" every year in June. I made a mental note to see exactly where Cross Plains was, and to investigate...




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We finally found the place a couple weeks ago, when we went up to northwest Texas to investigate college opportunities for The Kid. Cross Plains is about fifty miles more or less east of Abilene. An oil boom town during the twenties, it began kind of drying out during the fifties, and today is a remarkably tiny little place with next to nothing to speak of. Of the nine points of interest marked on their city map, one is a Dairy Queen, and another is a Subway sandwich shop.





The downtown has developed that kind of dried-out look that downtowns get when a Wal-Mart opens nearby, but for some reason, the surveyors, real-estate agents, insurance salesmen, and lawyers haven't moved into the storefronts yet. In Cross Plains, they won't, either. The Wal-Mart is thirty miles away, in Brownwood, and there just aren't enough local professionals to want to move into those storefronts. One of the businesses on the main street is a blacksmith, by the way, which gives you some idea of the town's nature right there.




We drove through in May, but didn't stop long. I just wanted to have a look at the place. Did they have a sign reading Welcome To Cross Plains, Home Of Conan Author Robert E. Howard? Did they have commercial tie-ins? Barbarian Burgers? Hyborian Dry Goods? Shoes And Sorcery Footwear? I remembered when a local boy from my hometown played with a pro team that actually made it to the Super Bowl one year... when I was in high school. His name is STILL on the "Welcome To" signs on the edge of town. Hell, Crystal City has a statue of Popeye in front of the town hall, just because they grow spinach there! Did Cross Plains have anything like that?




No.




Just that dried-up, dessicated main street. Two main roads, Main and First, and a scattering of side streets. Population, about a thousand. Most of the ones I saw seemed to be over fifty.





THEN we saw it -- the local Community Bulletin Board: Ah, THERE we were... they DID recognize him! See? "Barbarian Festival," right under the word CALENDAR. And right behind it, the library! And on the side of the library, a mural!


...but as I backed up to take the picture... I glanced across the street, to the left. There was another mural there, on the side of the building facing the library. This is it:
Ah. Hm. Well. Big talk for a town whose major industry seemed to be empty storefronts. As I stood and looked at this new mural... celebrating the joy of rednecks, oilworkers, cowboys, cactus, and dry red sand, I felt this weird sense of deja vu... I felt like I'd come home.




I didn't much like the town I grew up in. It was tiny, dusty, backward, and way the hell and gone away from anything at all interesting. It had three seasons: Cold (about two months) Wet (about two weeks) and Hot (the rest of the year). It was a community and culture that valued hardheadedness, hard work, and as little actual thought as possible. Simply reading books marked you as an odd fellow, and reading fiction books that weren't written by Louis LaMour marked you as a downright peculiar fellow, which was that much worse.





In short, "feeling at home" was not the warm comfortable familiar feeling most of you associate with the old home town. To me, "coming home" implied a sensation of "This place sucks!"




I noticed that on the big Cross Plains mural, there was no sign whatsoever of Robert E. Howard. There hadn't been any mention of him on the "Welcome To" signs, either. The most famous local citizen... creator of a character who's spawned two movies and a TV series, not to mention a cartoon show, a flood of comics, dozens of books that are STILL in print, almost seventy years after his death, and an entire GENRE of spinoff material, starting with a zillion old Italian sword and sandal movies and ending with Xena, Warrior Princess and the Everquest phenomenon...




...and if it weren't for the painting on the side of the library, you'd never know he ever lived there. They had a local celebrity... but they apparently didn't much feel he represented the town very well. He wasn't "local spirit." Sure, he was big in Peoria, big author, got made into movies and TV shows, but what did that mean to a bunch of local rednecks?




They were ashamed of him. The ones who knew about him at all, anyway.




But, still... there was the Barbarian Festival. Project Pride. This HAD to mean SOMETHING. If they were ashamed of their peculiar local boy, why hold a festival honoring him?




Then again... we're talking a little teeny town out in the middle of nowhere, which in Texas is a mighty big piece of real estate. How much of a festival could it be? I envisioned some sort of weird Community Center luncheon with elderly VFW members and Shriners wearing viking helmets, eating finger sandwiches, and trying to sell Frazetta prints and Arnold Schwarzenegger videos to half a dozen bored teenagers who'd driven up from Brownwood, desperate for something to break the monotony of life in the Great Fried Empty...




I had to find out. And... the weekend of June 8 ... I would.

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We stopped in Brownwood, first, to secure lodgings and to hunt for Greenleaf Cemetery, where Howard is buried. I figured if we were going to be there, we might as well do the whole thing, right?

Brownwood's a small city some thirty miles south of Cross Plains. It's got Howard Payne University, where Robert Howard took some business courses (but wound up dropping out of college because he didn't see much point in taking classes he didn't like). Unfortunately, Brownwood was hosting a Gun And Knife show that weekend at the civic center, so we had to hunt around a bit to find a motel that wasn't packed (Texans will drive for HOURS to attend a good Gun Show). I once again tripped over my age, in the process... some part of me is forever outraged that you can't get a motel room anywhere for $25 a night, any more...

We found Greenleaf Cemetery fairly easily, and the Howard gravesite even more so -- you drive on the road you came in on about halfway back, then look around for the State Historical Marker.

The marker is just off to the right of this picture.

This marker has got it wrong, though... to the best of my knowledge, Robert Howard wasn't much on science fiction. He loved heroic fantasy stories, though, and wrote more of that genre than anything else (although his boxing stories come close to matching the number). His main thrust was ANYTHING studly and two-fisted. I figure that the people who provided the information for the marker were local folks... to whom "fantasy" and "sci-fi" mean the same thing -- "anythang what can't couldn't not happen, nohow."

Oh, yeah -- poet. Howard wrote a fair amount of poetry, too, and not-bad poetry at that. Much of it was collected and published by Arkham House after his death. Man... all that, and poetry, too. Talk about being the "kiss of death", socially speaking... no WONDER the local folks thought he was weird...

I thought it was kind of interesting that the stone's been there since 1936 (when Robert bought the plot -- he'd apparently been thinking about suicide)... but the marker wasn't put up until 1993. Why not? Conan had been big business since around 1984, when the movie came out. Normally, small towns LIKE having a local celebrity, someone they can namedrop on. Why not Robert Howard?

Well... because pulp authors are not the kind of authors one can normally be proud of. This ain't Steinbeck, you know. Furthermore, what did the guy write about? Barbarians, pirates, boxers, ghost stories, Indiana Jones adventurers... oh, yeah, and a few cowboy stories. Steinbeck he definitely wasn't. On the other hand, it's been said that few authors have truly captured the West of the 1930s the way Howard did -- the oil boom of the 1930s spawned a Texas that was nearly as wild and woolly as the one of the 1840s, with oil roughnecks taking the place of cowboys AND the Indians! Gamblers, dance hall girls, local sheriffs, gun and knife fights, and a murder a night...

In one of his stories, Howard remarks on a job he had in Cross Plains, delivering dry cleaned clothes all over town... and he remarked that the dresses of the prostitutes came to symbolize to him what the oil boom meant: fine, colorful clothes, light and beautiful as dreams, rich with joyful promises... but stained with nameless filth.

It's a good turn of phrase, and says something about Howard as well as the era.

**********

After a good night's sleep, we made the run into Cross Plains on Saturday morning, to make the Postal Cancellation at the Post Office. This was apparently a big thing, since their post office wasn't normally open at all on Saturday... so we returned armed with a map this time. The points of interest included the Howard House, the place where the guy grew up and died, which they have only recently (within the past ten years) renovated and turned into a museum.

Only a couple years ago, they applied for and got the Historical Marker. It hasn't been installed yet, though. But the house wouldn't open until 10 a.m., and the Post Office would start their special REH cancellations at 9, so we headed down to the PO early, to avoid the rush. I'd brought a stack of postcards, and a book that I'd hoped I could get stamped as well...

Interesting thing about the Post Office rush, though... there wasn't one.

There was NO one there except the postmistress and her assistant, who may well have been her husband. They were quite polite, and a little at a loss when I proffered a stack of postcards. I hadn't stamped them -- I'd thought that they would simply stamp them "Paid" and then apply the commemorative Howard cancellation. They didn't seem equipped for this, and asked if I would like to buy stamps, instead. I said, "Sure." They began hunting around for 21-cent postcard stamps. They didn't seem to have any handy. After a few minutes, postcard stamps were found... and then I saw the size of the cancellation.

Apparently, these cancellations were never meant for postcards. They were intended for full-sized envelopes, and were never actually intended to be MAILED -- you were supposed to show up with STAMPED ENVELOPES, which would then be hand cancelled, providing you with a souvenir, right then and there, for the low low cost of a first-class stamp.

I hadn't known that; we didn't even see what the cancellation LOOKED like until we bought a paper that morning in Cross Plains. Some people out there are going to get very impressive postcards from me where part of the message may not be readable... but they WERE graciously willing to stamp the book, although they could NOT cancel anything that didn't have POSTAGE in it... which is why there's a stamp in the picture below, as well as a red line I added in Paint (it's illegal to post pictures of uncancelled stamps, and the fellow tried to obscure as little of the stamp and cancellation as possible...)

This is a hardback book, by the way, which gives you SOME idea of how honkin' huge that cancellation is...

While going through this little drama, another couple walked in, and asked me where I had bought my postcards. I regretfully informed them that I had brought them with me from home... but, still, at least I wasn't going to be the sole tourist who'd showed up for this circus...

After finishing at the post office, we still had more than half an hour, so we drove around Cross Plains, getting a feel for the place. It didn't take long. About ten minutes, in fact.

The main thing I noticed was the streets. The main streets are named Main and First. The rest of the streets are named ... well, Second, Third, Fourth, and so on... and the cross streets were Avenue A, Avenue B, Avenue C, Avenue D, and like that. We were about ready to go back to the Howard House when I finally saw a street named Cypress, and burst out laughing. Finally, a street with an actual NAME!

It frankly confirmed a lot of what I'd been thinking about the actual inhabitants. These hadn't been imaginative folks. They had an oil boom going on, and they were in a hurry and to heck with real street names, Avenue A will work just fine...

By now, a few people had gathered at the pavilion to the left of the Howard House, and a school bus had pulled up. The information we had said that there would be a guided tour of some of Robert Howard's favorite haunts in town, and we decided that would be as good a way to kill an hour as any, so we parked and walked up to the pavilion.

Immediately, a half dozen people were ON us. Welcome! Was this our first time? Had we registered? Well, no, actually we hadn't... we were kind of planning on playing it anonymous... but with so few people here, we stood out. Our Hawaiian shirts didn't help much, either... most everyone else was dressed like rednecks, except for the tourists. We stood out like peacocks in the chicken coop. Meekly, we submitted, got nametags, and signed the guest registry, and went into the house to see what there was to see.

The house was interesting, though. They'd gone to the trouble of trying to duplicate what the house had looked like in 1936, as closely as possible. Author L. Sprague de Camp, the guy who co-wrote all those Conan novels in the sixties, had apparently wound up with a fair number of the Howard family possessions, and had donated many of them back to Project Pride. I was informed of this, kind of relentlessly, by the horde of Project Pride people in the house who were only too anxious to tell me all about it.


The heck of it is... Cross Plains really hasn't CHANGED that much since 1936. Really! I mean, we walked around the yard before entering the Howard House... at one point, it occurred to me I was likely standing about where Robert Howard shot himself... when I heard something make an odd noise. I looked up. Off in someone's back yard, facing into the Howards' back yard, a donkey looked back at me. Somewhere else nearby, I heard chickens cackling.

This isn't something you hear or see too much around Texas National Historical Sites, you know? Much less your average "museum".

On the other hand, it does give you a creepy feeling of versimilitude. A couple of times, I found myself feeling like Robert Howard was about to walk IN and ask me just what the hell I thought I was doing, poking around his house?

The house was... interesting. For one thing, it's quite small. Too small, in fact, for more than about five people to tour at once, not including the horde of relentlessly informative little old ladies, commenting on which furniture items and knickknacks are authentic Howard items and which are simply donated items from that same time period and so on.



This may give the impression I didn't much care for the tour. Truth is, I did. The tour guides didn't yammer; they were very specific and to the point, and it was stuff I wanted to know. Every little item in there gave me the feeling I was that much closer to the man himself... but if you're the type who wants to be left the hell alone to look at things, this isn't a tour you would like.

Robert Howard's room was teeny; it had been part of a porch that Robert and his father had walled in to make it part of the house. It was the size of a walk-in closet, barely enough room for the narrow, bunklike bed and the little wooden table that had his typewriter on it (well, not HIS typewriter, but the exact same model. HIS typewriter is in the hands of a Howard collector in California, they tell me. I got the impression they were a bit miffed at him for not offering to donate the thing back to Project Pride).

Looking at this tiny, cell-like room, it was hard to imagine that this was the place that had given birth to ancient temples, lost cities, the Jewels of Gwahlur, the splendor of Ophir... I mean, if you put convicted killers in that room, the ACLU would be all OVER you... but this is where Robert Howard forged entire worlds.

Much of the museum -- the hallway and kitchen walls, anyway -- were given over to old photos of Howard, his family, and Cross Plains.


The kitchen in particular was interesting, because one wall was taken up with old pictures of the town during the oil boom, when Howard was a kid ... and a glass case packed with original Howard books and magazines... old Weird Tales, Conan comics from the seventies, and a fair number of paperbacks (including several of the pastiches by Robert Jordan, which Robert Howard had nothing to do with, I noticed with a grin).

In the dining room, an excited lady was telling us all about this new book -- an original copy of Howard's first novel, first edition, only seven copies left in the world, and a fellow had donated one of them to the museum(!), when a fellow came in and announced that the town tour was to begin. We dutifully trooped out and got on the bus... an old school bus, belonging to the Cross Plains schools.

I’ll call the guy Mr. Beame. He had inherited the Howard property, and acted as a sort of unofficial emcee for us throughout the whole experience. I won't bore you with the town tour -- you had to be there to appreciate that -- but what Beame had to say struck some chords.

"I was an adult," he said, "before I knew who Robert Howard was, or what he did, or that he'd lived in this town. I grew up here, but I'd never heard of him. I'd heard of Conan, of course... but never knew that his creator had lived here."

"Really?" I thought. "Gee... wonder why that is...?" Well, pfft. I knew why that was, and Beame confirmed it with his next statement.

"People around here just didn't talk about Robert Howard," he continued. "I don't know why. Maybe it was the stigma attached to suicide back then. Maybe it was that he wrote strange stuff, the sort of thing no one local would want to read. Maybe it was just because so many people thought he was crazy... but I guess Cross Plains might have been a little ashamed of him. People around here just don't talk about him much."

My wife raised an eyebrow, and kicked my ankle, down low where no one could see.

We cruised away from the Howard House. I hadn't noticed before, but the place across the street was a "monument outlet"... it sold tombstones.

We saw the remains of the old icehouse where Howard and his friends used to box when he was a teener. We saw his girlfriend's house (yes, he DID have a girlfriend, at least one -- see the movie THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD for details), and Beame pointed out the inaccuracies in the movie while showing us the house. We also saw the dry-goods store that a Mr. Lay had owned and sold to go into the corn chip business, copyrighted the word "Fritos", and became OverLord Of The Snacks...

Made me wonder if anyone ever talked about Mr. Lay locally, or if they were ashamed of him, too.

There were only about ten people on the bus. The tour took maybe forty minutes, and most of that was Mr. Beame, reciting local history and quoting from Howard's books. We did have one odd moment, though -- at one point, Beame remarked to us that when couples came on the tour, it was usually one Howard fan and one person who had no idea what all the fuss was about, and who among us were the Howard fans? How had we come into contact with Robert Howard?

When it came to my turn, I remarked how I'd read Conan comics, then read the Conan paperbacks, and discovered pulp horror paperbacks... H.P. Lovecraft, who led me back to Robert Howard, and after that I was hooked...

...and Mr. Beame tried to go onto the next person... and my wife promptly stood up and began reciting HER history! SHE wasn't the silent partner, by ghod! SHE'd discovered Howard before I had, and she was gonna TELL us about it!

Mr. Beame looked a little surprised, as did most everyone else on the bus. I bit my lip to keep from laughing, and succeeded, mostly.

We cruised past the school where Novalyn Price, Howard's girlfriend, had taught. To this day, there are three buildings, right next to each other -- the elementary school, the middle school, and the high school. All right there. Altogether, they take up less room than my old high school did. Their football team is the Buffalos, by the way (Not the Barbarians?)

After the tour, we went back to the Howard House... all ten of us. Shortly thereafter, a horde of people showed up. Turns out WE were the yokels... all the SERIOUS Howard scholars, as well as the interested locals, had been over at the high school, attending a panel discussion on "The Influence Of Texas On Robert E. Howard's Works." It had been part of the program, but we'd ignored it, since we weren't technically "registered guests". Turns out we could have gone if we'd wanted -- it was free.

So was lunch, which surprised me. Buffet lunch, make-your-own-sandwich, ham or cheese or both, with pickles, onions, chips (Lays, I wondered?), and cookies. Free sodas, free ice water. No, no, it's all free, but a donation to Project Pride would be greatly appreciated.

We postponed lunch briefly to go check out the souvenir shop -- they had the back room of the Howard House set up with purchaseables and collectibles. I'd hoped to be able to buy some paperbacks, but they didn't have any, unfortunately -- apparently, they sell out too quick. They did have a variety of booklets about Howard and the town, and one of his short stories for sale, as well as Project Pride T-Shirts (Conan's ghost in the sky, wielding sword, hovering over the Howard House) and a LOT of artwork, posters... and postcards, all at extremely reasonable prices. They even had freebies, various flyers and xeroxed items, for the really cheap tourist, I guess.

I was amused, and kind of touched, to see a photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan The Barbarian on the wall. It wasn't for sale. Arnold had autographed it for Project Pride, with his best wishes and hopes for their success.


My wife and I discussed this over the free lunch. It was like... they were learning NOT to be ashamed of the guy... to CELEBRATE him, instead of wanting to kick dirt over him and forget him... but they still weren't quite sure what to do with him. Beame had said as much during the tour -- "I attended NecronomiCon in Providence, Rhode Island, and they did a tour of Lovecraft's Providence, and I thought it might be a neat idea," he said. "I don't know why anyone would want to drive around looking at Cross Plains, though -- we don't have the architecture that Providence does -- but people seem to like it."

We pretty much bought everything we wanted at the souvenir shop. We spent less than twenty bucks. Not because we didn't have any money, but because everything was extremely reasonably priced. It was WEIRD. Didn't these folks have enough sense to GOUGE the tourists? I wound up dropping more in the donation jar than I would have paid for lunch for two at most delicatessens.

Then again, maybe that's what they were aiming for.

We hung around after lunch. The local library would be opening at one, and they promised to be opening the Howard Archives, a collection of his original manuscripts and old Weird Tales pulps, and old Arkham House first editions of his works.

I took more pictures in the house, ran across some Lovecraft freaks, had a nice chat. They were kind of mystified, too. Why was everything so cheap? Why did everyone seem to want to be your friend?

In time, I figured it out. They were small-town folks, that's all. I think Beame might have been the only one of the people in Project Pride who'd ever been to a sci-fi or fantasy convention. They knew they might be able to soak the tourists for a pretty penny for Barbarian Burgers, plastic swords, and idiotic little laminated pasteboard deodorizer Conan dangles for your rearview mirror... but they didn't wanna. Maybe they were just a little one-horse charity in a one-horse town with their tiny little museum devoted to a dead guy that the town STILL wasn't quite sure what to make of...

...but they had CLASS, by ghod, and persons of quality don't act like that. This is the Robert E. Howard Museum, not a circus, and not a cheap curio shop. We do have a few T-shirts and posters if you want them. Take it or leave it.

It had been so long since I'd seen a tourist attraction like that that I'd forgotten what it was like. Hell, even the Alamo souvenir shop will sell you your own hat if you put it on the counter. This wasn't like that.

Maybe we should put little old ladies from small towns in charge of more stuff.

**********
Lunch came and went, and the wife and I anxiously awaited the opening of the library. The Cross Plains library is teeny. I think we may have as many books in our house as they do in the entire library... which is located in one of the storefronts downtown. I had desperately hoped that they would have some Howard books for sale there; I'd been frankly disappointed that they didn't have much of Howard's actual work on sale at the Howard House.


They did have nearly every paperback Howard's stuff ever appeared in, though. They seemed to be missing some of the Lancer/Ace paperbacks, the ones with the Frank Frazetta covers. I could see why. Those are worth money on the secondary market. Admittedly, I'd think the folks of Cross Plains would be honest enough not to swipe library books, but still... even if you lose it, the cover price is only, what, fifty cents? They had the entire Baen Howard Library, the Cthulhu paperback, and even some small press stuff.

One thing DID bug me. A lot. An official part of the Howard Collection ... are a number of Conan comics, both the regular four-color comics and the larger black-and-white Conan comic magazines. Now... I can see why. The first 27 issues (I think) not only were based directly on the Conan novels, but had some of the greatest fantasy art ever done, by Barry Windsor-Smith, back when he walked among mortals and drew comic books. The magazines' Conan stories were usually written by the comics people, but they often featured backup stories that WERE written by Howard -- my particular favorite being the Solomon Kane stories -- and illustrated by Marvel Comics artists! Ah, glorious geekery!

A brief aside: When I was eleven, I remember having my Conan comics confiscated from me by a little old lady teacher with grey hair and bun, who sternly lectured me and was no doubt certain she was saving me from this EVIL COMIC FILTH-TRASH...

...and now, segue to 26 years later, and I am standing in this tiny small-town library, complete with a little old lady librarian, who is helpful and smiling and showing you the treasures of her beloved library... and then gestures at a shelf full of COMIC BOOKS. At least one of which was the same issue I’d had confiscated in the incident in question. Go figure.







The back room was even better. A number of original Howard manuscripts were available to the public for perusal. My wife promptly slipped on a pair of the white cotton gloves you were required to don if you wanted to touch them, and dived into a Howard detective story that was never published...







I, on the other hand, turned to this amazing collection of original Weird Tales magazines, laid out on yet another table. I'd only seen old Weird Tales in a couple of book and paper shows, always under glass or in plastic, and selling for insane amounts of money... and here was a table, groaning under a huge pile of them. At one point, the librarian took one out and flipped through it, showing us the ads and illustrations.

It was so brittle, the table of contents page broke off in her hands. The guy behind me actually whimpered when it happened. I suspect he knew what that magazine would cost at one of those book shows...

I desperately wanted to go through all those old Weird Tales, looking at Howard and Lovecraft and Derleth and Quinn, seeing them the way they'd originally been seen by the world... but I was just too scared. I could see accidentally dropping the thing and watching it explode into a thousand bucks worth of light brown confetti, right there at my feet. Instead, I picked up a first edition of SKULL-FACE AND OTHERS, from the first Arkham House printing. I'd never read the story, "Skull-Face", but I'd seen a LOT of illustrations from it in various art collections, and I'd always wanted to read it... but it's not in any of the Howard books I currently own... and here it was.







I glanced over at Chaosia. She was lost in the manuscripts. We had time. Why not?

And I sat and I fell into the dark world of the 1920s, with one of Howard's perennial two-fisted heroes, Sailor Steve Costigan, I unraveled the mystery of Kathulos, villain of villains, next to whom Moriarty looked like an accountant and Fu Manchu looked like a drag queen... Kathulos, aka Skull-Face, the mad Egyptian crimelord... who at one point escapes Costigan simply by removing his mask, stepping into a sarcophagus, and crossing his arms! The man's face is literally a LIVING SKULL!

"Kathulos of Egypt!" he cried, laughing maniacally. "Kathulos is older and greater than they dream! I am Kathulos of Atlantis, American fool, and your world will be MINE!"

Ohh, the joy of it all...

In time, Chaosia put down her manuscripts, and I set aside the first editions. We had planned to be home tonight, and it was a five-hour drive back home.

The library didn't have much for sale; a few hardback Conan collections, and a hardback Black Vulmea collection, which surprised me -- I didn't know anyone had collected Howard's seven-seas-and-pirates fiction. The book I wound up buying, in fact, wasn't a Howard book at all ... it was "One Who Walked Alone", by Novalyn Price Ellis. She'd dated Howard during his last few years, and had kept extensive journals, since she'd wanted to be a writer, too... which was one of the reasons she dated Howard, who literally made his living writing for pulp magazines. This had marked Howard as lazy, peculiar, and obstinate by the locals, who didn't understand a man who didn't do "honest work", regardless of how much money he made...

...and her book is probably the best look we have today at what the guy was like. It's not like he had a lot of friends, and the ones he did have are dead. I felt it was as good a way to get to know the guy as any.

The drive home was uneventful; Chaosia and I passed the time playing roadkill bingo and looking for odd or obscene signs to take pictures of.

...and that's my story, that's What I Did On My Summer Vacation for you all. It occurs to me that today, as I finish this, it's exactly sixty-six years ago today that Howard killed himself. He was very distraught about his mother dying... and, having read Ellis' book, I suspect he may have had bipolar disorder as well. A shame... and a waste.

But... while his work sits on my bedside table... while his barbarians laugh and slay and drink and wench through a hundred movies, a thousand stories... while Pulp Fiction is today regarded as a unique form of literature, instead of the "garbage" it was once considered...

...can we really say he's really gone?

Don't think so...

The Last Lovecraft



H.P. Lovecraft covered a lot of interesting and seminal themes with his writing, but one he liked a LOT was the idea that some things were just too weird for the human mind to handle.




"I dare not relate that which I saw, because you would go mad from the knowing, and I from the telling!" It's not an EXACT quote, but his protagonists often said similar things. Remember the famous Jack Nicholoson line, "You can't handle the truth?" Well, Lovecraft's favorite trope was that "The truth is so insane and horrible that the human mind would come apart like a house of cards in a typhoon if you REALLY knew what was going on!"

In short... NOBODY could REALLY handle the truth!



And his stories are full of characters who become more and more creeped out as they discover what's going on, to the point where most of them go completely fruity-gumballs and die or end up in an insane asylum... or retire quietly and live out horribly damaged lives, tortured by the horror of what they have seen. The horror. The horror...



Since most of his stories revolved around NOT seeing the monster, this means that most movies based on his work tend to have kind of a tough time. There have been quite a few decent ones -- From Beyond, Re-Animator and its sequels, The Dunwich Horror, and even a pretty-good version of The Call Of Cthulhu -- but most Lovecraft adaptations (The Curse, Cthulhu Mansion, Necronomicon, The Unnameable) kind of fall flat.




Which brings us to The Last Lovecraft... a comedy.




Is it a good movie? No. It is not. But in a weird kind of way, it may be the single truest adaptation of Lovecraft's THEMES that I've ever seen in a movie.



Because the longer I watch it, the creepier it gets. The more uncomfortable it makes me. The weirder and more horrific it becomes.





Not the monsters. The actors.





I can sum up the plot, without spoilers, fairly easily: "The coming of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods is nigh. The Stars Are Right. The world will end soon, and humanity will be done for... unless the last surviving member of the Lovecraft family (a nerd) can put a relic to proper use and stop the Apocalypse from happening, with the help of his even nerdier friends. But our heroes are pursued by Deep Ones and worse things..."







When I heard about this, naturally I was interested. I'm a Lovecraft fan from way back. But this movie... this one is just... wow. You see... the monsters... aren't scary. The people are.



The movie shifts back and forth between following the monsters who are pursuing our heroes to get the magic relic so they can bring about armageddon... and our heroes, who are trying to figure out how to use the relic while staying ahead of the cultists and monsters. The viewpoint shifts back and forth between these two camps.



And you know what? The monsters and cultists are actually pretty comforting. They're guys in masks and special effects makeup who ham it up and act like monster bad guys in a million other B-movies. It's like old home week. Family reunion, even.



... while the nerds? The nerds are the most unlikeable, awkward, geeky, socially maladroit (even with EACH OTHER) dweebs that you ever saw at a Star Trek convention, or gathered around a gaming table. These are the guys who, apropos of nothing, walk up to you in a comic shop, assume you are their friend, and start telling you about their D&D character. These are the nerds that made me give up going to conventions in the first place, the kind of people I don't really wanna be rude to, but would cheerfully chew my leg off to escape from a conversation with. The kind of geek with NO social skills, and a worldview that's skewed enough to make you feel like you're on drugs just from standing too CLOSE to him, you know? Especially the guy in the middle of the poster above. I could practically smell his BO as I watched the movie...



...and as I watched the movie... I realized that this was intentional on the part of the moviemakers. The monsters aren't the monsters in this movie.



We are.



I'm going to go do something more comforting now. This may be the single scariest Lovecraft adaptation I've ever seen...

Friday, November 26, 2010

"It is dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue."



1985 was a whole different world.

AIDS hadn't hit yet; the Sexual Revolution was still going strong. President Reagan's wife Nancy told us all to "Just Say No," but most of us weren't. A lot of us hadn't figured out that the seventies were over. If you want pop culture details, I recommend "1985" by Bowling for Soup.*

But this blog is about gaming, and to some extent, computers. We had both in 1985, but they were pretty different from what we know now.

There were games, sure. Dungeons and Dragons was eleven years old by then, and the first edition of Advanced D&D was still going strong. Magic: The Gathering and the Vampire games were still to come by years.


There were computer games. Sort of. Most of the best games you'd see were in the arcades at that time, but for the few who had personal computers back then, you could find a few items.


I'd cut my teeth on ADVENTURE, for the Atari 2600, the old cartridge-based console that pretty much created home console gaming as we know it today. No hard drive, no internet connection, and all of 16 kilobytes of memory. That's KILOBYTES, son, not megabytes, not gigabytes. But what did we know? We thought it was awesome, because it was the cutting edge of technology at the time.














The box is on the right. The actual gameplay screen is on the left. YOU, the player, are represented by the little green square at upper right; the arrow thing you are holding is your magical sword. The yellow thing at lower left is the Grail, the object of your quest; get it back to your Golden Castle, and you win the game! Unfortunately, you have a red duck -- er, DRAGON, to contend with. In this screen, he is very likely charging at YOU, the player; however, since the chunky-pixeled icons could only be rendered ONE WAY, you're holding your sword backwards, and the duck-dragon is charging at you butt first.

Did I mention you can only hold one item at a time? If you charge down and butt the grail with your square little body, you will automatically drop the sword. Luckily, the dragons in this game are so dumb, he'll likely charge into it and kill himself. If he doesn't, though, he'll bump into you, ROAR loudly, and then eat you; your square yellow selfness will be visible in the little hole in his belly. And then you can hit RESET because you've just lost the game.

That was the state of the art in 1980. It had improved a tad by 1985... but not a hell of a lot. ZORK was still the big dog as far as computer fantasy gaming went. It was quite good. It was also completely text based... NO graphics whatsoever.
It was considered hot stuff because it could parse text; you could literally type in English what you wanted to do, and the game would figure it out and let you do it.


It's also worth noting that ZORK and its sequels were still in print for YEARS after the first one came out in 1980. We were still pretty far back along the tech curve; processing power was doubling every few years, sure, but this was not a rapid process when you were starting out with mere kilobytes of memory. Hell, the first computer I ever owned that had an actual hard drive wasn't until 1999.

I do remember the first home computer game I ever played that had actual graphics. It was 1985, the computer was the Tandy ColorComputer (and it should tell you something that Radio Shack was still a player in the computer manufacturing and sales biz at the time), and the game was Dungeons of Daggorath.




Snazzy, eh? Vector graphics! Actual colors! Yowza! Admittedly, the graphics didn't actually MOVE -- although there was sound. No music; this was beyond the capability of the system or the speakers.





You'd type MOVE FORWARD (or M -space - F - space - ENTER) and you'd move up, square by square.






Upon reaching a door, you'd type OPEN RIGHT, indicating you were using your right hand to open the door, and the screen would change. It was essentially creating the illusion of movement by simply drawing a new picture every time you did something. Your computer still does this, but at a framerate of 24 to 30 pictures every second. The old Tandy CoCo had a framerate of... um... about one picture every two or three seconds, if I recall correctly. It was not fast. It seemed downright glacial by today's standards. But it was magic, back in the day.




Oh, look, we're being attacked by a troll. The troll did not move. His pose never changed. You could tell he was moving towards you because his hazy silhouette would appear in the distance, and then he'd suddenly appear -- one square closer to you -- until he was in your face, as he is now, and it was time to fight.


Behind him, you can see the distant form of a snake. The snake will wait patiently until the troll is out of the way before attacking you. This wound up being one of the keys to the game: once you'd become powerful enough, weak enemies like snakes and spiders COULD NOT HIT YOU, which meant if there was a spider in the way, the Troll or Knight (lord, we were terrified of knights) would have to simply stand there behind the spider, waiting for the spider to die, before he could move up and hit you. So long as you had armor and shield and were tough enough -- and had a spider behind you -- you could explore the dungeon in relative safety. It was also handy to save empty potion bottles and discharged magic rings -- if you threw them down on the ground in front of you, the enemy HAD TO PICK THEM ALL UP BEFORE ATTACKING YOU.

This is how I killed my first Knight -- I dumped all my stuff on the floor except my sword and shield, and waited. When a knight found me, I beat the crap out of him while he was picking up all my stuff. I finally managed to kill him, just as he was picking up the last item.

The second knight was easier. And note that we had to find all this crap out by trial and error. There were no hint books, no cheats, and no Internet to go and look stuff up on.

This brings me to the real topic that made me sit down today for yammer: the story I read in 1985. It was published in Dragon magazine that year -- issue 97 -- and was pure science fiction. In it, a young girl is trying to make money so she can attend this exclusive music school in Austin. Her method of making money is rather unorthodox: she is playing a game called "Catacomb" on her computer.




Catacomb isn't just a simple computer game, though. She's connected to thousands of other players, all over the country, and many of the people she meets in-game are ACTUAL PEOPLE, avatars of players from other places! And in Catacomb, it is possible to slay monsters, take their treasure, and either buy better gear in-game... or trade it for a fraction of its value in real American money. This is how she hopes to make enough for tuition: by slaying monsters in an "online" game you play on a "web" of other computers.

I don't think today's youth can imagine how incredibly unlikely all this sounded back in 1985.
Sure, we knew about computers. We were cheerfully dropping quarters in them in our free time to play anything from Video Poker to Spy Hunter. In fact, that year, a dungeon-type arcade game, Gauntlet, was quite popular with a lot of people I knew. But playing over a web of computers? How would you connect them? Telephones? The long distance fees would beggar a king!
Shows what I knew. In the SJG game Car Wars, autoduellists could keep in touch while on the road using Elmay (short for electronic mail), a computer text that could be transmitted and recieved within seconds. Suuuure. Why use Elmay when you could just call someone up? And the idea of a game where you could actually sell your in-game treasures for real money? Ha, ha, ha!
Sure sounded like science fiction to me. But the guys at SJG were a lot more plugged into the world of computers than I was. And, apparently, so was Henry Melton.

You want to know what the world of online gaming looked like from the far distant world of 1985? The author of Catacomb, one Henry Melton, was kind enough to post the entire text of the story on his web site. Here's the link: http://www.henrymelton.com/0/h10.html
So go see for yourself.


*The lyrics to the song "1985" by Bowling for Soup can be found here: http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/1985-lyrics-bowling-for-soup/88197b61f74bdd2748256eca000a86a3

Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Praise Of Roebeast




This is Roebeast, and his blog, Roebeast's Magical House of Sunshine, can be found easily enough here on Blogspot:

http://roebeast.blogspot.com/

I sing his praises today, because he is apparently one of the three other people than myself who bought Fantasy Modeling when it first came out.

FM was a fantastic magazine, born of the early 1980s, the success of Starlog magazine, and the fantasy gaming craze that grew into what us old grognards of today think of as simply "gaming and gamers."

It was devoted largely to miniature modeling and painting, but had articles about modelbuilding, kitbashing, gaming, wargaming, and so much more. It was a glorious thing, to those of us who lived way the hell and gone out in the boonies, back in the day, back before cell phones and web connections made nothing very distant at all.

It only lasted four issues. I mourned the hell out of it when it folded. I'd subscribed for the coming year; they sorrowfully sent me a check for the balance of my money (and an offer to invest it in a subscription to Starlog.)

Today, though, we live in a very different world, a world where if I want Leonard Nimoy's music album on CD, I can order it on Amazon (or Ebay, if I want the original vinyl.) Today, NOTHING seems like it's very hard to get. The internet is a place where if ANYONE EVER GAVE A SHIT ABOUT IT, there's a site... or a blog... or a retrospective... or a photo gallery... or, in many cases, the thing itself, available for download for a reasonable fee, or free.

But not Fantasy Modeling. It was just too obscure. Too few people had bought it, read it. All the copies ever printed were trashed, or lost, or made into mouse bedding somewhere out there. I searched, I hunted. But the only "Fantasy Modeling" my google-fu ever returned were exotic dance studios and nude clubs in various cities across the nation.

Not that this was a bad thing, but it weren't what I were lookin' for.

But then, casting his mighty shadow across the dawning Web, came Roebeast, modeling tools in one great hand, mouse in the other. He took a break from his many vocations, including blogging, comics work, modeling, gaming, and (if his picture is any indication), killing zombies with sledgehammers.

And he dug into his pile of old and beloved periodicals, and took the time to digitally preserve a grand and glorious thing for the benefit of us all.

Check his link, above, if you still don't get what I'm talking about. His comics and model work is quite worthwhile, too.

Thanks, RB. When's issue four going up?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pig Faced Orcs and Other Changes

Nowadays, if you ask someone what an orc looks like, you're likely to get a picture that looks something like this....

...or perhaps like this....
...or perhaps even like this...



Wasn't like that for me. When I became interested in fantasy literature and gaming, back in the seventies, there was some conflict about orcs. First time I ever saw an orc, it looked like this:

...the illustration in the first edition AD&D Monster Manual.

Now, I'd read Lord of the Rings, and Orcs got quite a rap in that series. Man, orcs were just flat out mean, ugly, unpleasant, and lethal, if you let them be. They had names like Ugluk and Gorbag, and would eat your hobbits for breakfast if Saruman didn't want them alive. THESE creatures, though... WTF? These weren't scary monsters, these were confused looking pig people... or perhaps the sapient evolved descendants of Dino from The Flintstones. THESE could not be orcs. What DID orcs look like?


When Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of the Rings movie came out, I went to go see it. Sure, they'd have to show orcs in there, wouldn't they? Well, as it turned out... not exactly.

As animated over live action footage... well... they did manage scary pretty well. But you couldn't see what they looked like for beans. They vaguely looked like badly animated guys in battered renfair gear with glowing eyes added in postproduction. What the hell DID an orc look like? At one point, I had the opportunity to buy some 25mm orc miniatures. I looked forward to painting them up and seeing what they looked like. I wish I had some pictures of those figures, because they were so badly sculpted, that once I had them painted... well... I STILL wasn't sure what an Orc looked like...
The Brothers Hildebrandt did some terrific Lord of the Rings art for a series of calendars back in the seventies. This was their first painting with orcs in it. I was still not satisfied. If these were orcs, they were Disney orcs. Where could I find something MEAN and SCARY, durnit?


Games Workshop, in England, was one of the first outfits to give me a REAL clue as to what an orc looked like, as seen above. They were green, had long pointy ears, tended to baldness, and had big lantern jaws and tusks. Well, it was a start...

It took the Dungeons and Dragons people thirty years before they decided what an orc looked like. Perhaps to avoid conflict with Games Workshop, D&D orcs are gray, and somewhat hairier than GW's. They're certainly scary, for all that they're pretty much cannon fodder and walking XP packages for players.
It took the Warcraft people, Blizzard Entertainment, to really flesh out the orc, though. Warcraft orcs are green, tusked, and remarkably scary. On the other hand, by the time Warcraft III and World of Warcraft came out, they weren't that bad -- they were, in fact, a deeply spiritual, shamanic-nature kind of folk, and had only been psychotic bloodthirsty villains due to being corrupted by demons. Sigh.


Blizzard had ushered in the PC orc... in both senses of the word; both player character and politically correct.

I mean, I know things are going to change. The game, the fantasy, all of it, is a muse for a lot of people, and there's going to be evolution in how our monsters and villains are presented.
But there are some permutations I could have gone without...