Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Two Ghosts and a Conjure-Man

In his tragically short life of just thirty years, Robert E. Howard was a very productive author.  He began writing as a child, publishing his first story in 1925, when he was eighteen years old.  Forty-eight of his stories would appear in Weird Tales, along with twenty-one poems.  He also published in Argosy, Strange Tales, Fight Stories, Action Stories, Oriental Stories, (a.k.a. Magic Carpet), Ghost Stories, Strange Detective Stories, Thrilling Adventures, Spicy Adventure Stories and Sport Story Magazine—which gives a sense of his range of interest.

James Gunn, in his fascinating 1975 history of science fiction Alternate Worlds, describes the economic challenge of being a pulp fiction writer, especially during the Depression era when Howard established his career.  Gunn writes that “—every pulp writer trying to make a living from selling words for one-half cent to a penny had to be prolific or starve…”  Gene Wolf, in his introduction to a collection of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories, remarks that Howard nevertheless was able to use his writing to generate the highest income in Cross Plains, Texas, where he lived.

In the early 20th Century, an aspiring horror, science fiction or fantasy writer was often financially driven to produce a great number of stories in a relatively short period of time.  He or she had to constantly expand into new subject matter and markets, and adapt to fluctuations in the public’s interest or taste.  H.P. Lovecraft tended to sneer at pulp fiction and the more mundane aspects of the writing business; productivity and marketing were not his strong suit.  In contrast, Robert E. Howard rose to this challenge, and aggressively explored new territories for his adventurous fiction.  He published poetry and hundreds stories in a variety of fiction genres.

In some respects the struggles of pulp fiction writers circa the 1920s and 1930s resemble the difficulties of current day bloggers and e-book publishers.  The low rate of remuneration creates an emphasis on voluminous output and continuous self-promotion.

Much of Howard’s work was published or adapted by others long after his death in 1936.  Though of uneven quality, many of these items are interesting to Howard enthusiasts because they contain the germs of ideas developed elsewhere in his fiction, or show the development of various themes and motifs that preoccupied him.  Following are a few stories that were published posthumously that readers may have come across.

In Robert E. Howard’s Restless Waters (1974), several ship captains gather in a sea side tavern to drink and keep warm during a terrible storm.  It is 1845, and Captain Starkey has contrived to marry off his hapless niece to a business associate in order to avoid bankruptcy—his plan may have involved the murder of a potential informant and the banishment of the girl’s fiancé to distant port.  The evil captain’s plot is revealed in a claustrophobic discussion around a table in the bar.  As the storm intensifies, something appears at the window to interfere with Starkey’s plot.  This one is very moody and melodramatic.

Colleagues are also drinking around a table in Delenda Est, (1968), albeit some 1500 years earlier than the setting of the story above.  “Delenda Est” may be an abbreviation of a well-known Latin quote from Cato the Elder:  “et praeterea censeo carthago delenda est”—“and furthermore, I declare that Carthage must be destroyed.”  (Except that the city intended for destruction in the story is Rome.) 

Readers will want to bone up on the history of the Punic Wars as well as the later attacks by barbarians against the declining Roman Empire.  This is the setting for Howard’s vignette.  A mysterious figure gives timely advice to a barbarian ship captain on the eve of an attack on the Eternal City.

Delenda Est is interesting to compare to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Very Old Folk, (1940), published a few years after Lovecraft’s death.  (See also An Antiquarian’s Dream.)  Lovecraft’s setting is somewhat earlier in history, and involves a Roman military expedition that encounters a supernatural force as it struggles to maintain control over a conquered people.  Delenda Est is an interesting variation on ghost stories involving “vengeance from the grave”, and seems as if it would have been an excellent opening to a much longer work.

The setting of Kelly the Conjure-Man (1964) is roughly cotemporaneous with Restless Waters, though it takes place in Arkansas instead of along the New England coast.  Howard imagines a survival of West African Vodun, (commonly called “voodoo”) among the slaves of one backwoods community in pre-Civil War America.  Vodun beliefs and practices are personified in “Kelly the ‘conjer man’, a terrifying and powerful folk wizard.  The story is more of a character sketch or back story to what might have been a much more extensive work.  Kelly disappears suddenly—it would be interesting to know why this happened.

The racism in Kelly the Conjure-Man is casual and likely offensive to many readers.  There is this remarkable passage near the end:

“In every community of whites and blacks, at least in the south, a deep, dark current flows forever, out of sight of the whites who but dimly suspect its existence.  A dark current of colored folks’ thoughts, deeds, ambitions and aspirations, like a river flowing unseen through the jungle.”

Howard’s acknowledgement that people with a different history and culture may have “ambitions and aspirations” of their own, suggests at least a proto-diversity awareness.  White America was hardly out of the woods with respect to sensitivity, acceptance and respect for other cultures early in the last century—not figuratively or literally.  (For a more visceral experience of Howard’s treatment of racial prejudice and anxiety see A Racist Nightmare).  Nevertheless, Howard’s views on race are much more nuanced than many of his colleagues at the time.     

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.