Monday, August 3, 2009

A review of REH: Two Gun Raconteur #13

Damon Sasser, as one Robert E. Howard fan to another: Take a bow. The editor of REH: Two Gun Raconteur (The Definitive Howard Journal) gets my praise for putting out a superb issue no. 13.

Before I delve into a description of the contents of REH: TGR 13, I’ll drop any pretense as a neutral reviewer and offer a mea culpa: I stand in awe of Sasser’s publication and the other journals dedicated to the life and writings of Howard. These include REH: TGR , The Dark Man, and until recently, The Cimmerian. These publications require a great deal of work to write and illustrate, edit, produce, and distribute, and are labors of love for which Howard fans owe their editors a debt of gratitude. They certainly have mine. It is wonderful to see the flame of Howard’s literary and cultural reputation, passed down from the likes of Amra in the 1950s, kept alive and burning strong. I hope that these remaining presses of Howard fandom and literary criticism keep running in the years to come.

As a newcomer to the universe of Howard journals, this was the first issue of REH:TGR that I’ve ever seen. Although they say you cannot judge a book by its cover I was sold after viewing its wonderful full-color cover illustration of Kull and Brule battling a horde of serpent-men. This is perhaps the most memorable scene from Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” commonly regarded as the first swords-and-sorcery tale ever written. The journal is a cleanly laid out, 8.5x11 black and white format with glossy paper, illustrated lavishly throughout and nice to look at and hold.

I was doubly pleased to find a Howard story leading off the issue, “The Black Moon.” This is a rare detective story by Howard and one I had never read before. Steve Harrison is a hard-bitten, tough, and muscular investigator that you don’t want to tangle with in a dark alley. The story starts with the murder of Harrison’s friend Wang Yun, an old Chinese shopkeeper who suffers a fatal bite from a cobra deviously planted in his shop. With his dying breath Yun tells Harrison that someone is after the Black Moon, described by Howard as “the biggest, most perfect black pearl in the world,” worn by the Empress Wu-hou in 684 A.D. and the prize of the crown jewels of China. The pearl is hidden in Yun's shop. Harrison spends the rest of the story finding the Black Moon, uncovering the identity of the murderer, and setting the trap to catch Yun’s killer.

“The Black Moon” isn’t Howard’s strongest work and some of the dialogue is downright clunky, but as with almost all of Howard’s tales it’s carried by a compelling, fast-paced plot. There’s also some surprising humor in here (or at least surprising to those who only know Howard through Conan and the grim Solomon Kane): For example, there’s one scene in which a suspect refuses to take the Black Moon, telling Harrison with a perfectly straight face that, “Pearls like that cause more murder than women do.”

As much as I enjoyed “The Black Moon,” the centerpiece of the issue is Bob Roehm’s “The Long and Winding Road: A Poetic History,” which tells in detail the fascinating publication history of The Complete Poetry of Robert E. Howard, as well as previously published books of Howard poetry, including Always Comes Evening (1957) and Singers in the Shadows (1970). Roehm’s piece left me feeling very sad for Howard’s father, Dr. Isaac Howard, who suffered so much following his wife’s passing and his son’s suicide. Dr. Howard dearly wanted to see his son’s poetry published in his lifetime, but unfortunately he passed away in 1944, 13 years before Always Comes Evening and with his son’s poems in limbo, sitting in the hands of the faltering Druid Press. Roehm’s article also gave me another reason to admire the great work of Glenn Lord, whose tireless work tracking down Howard’s poetry led to the publication of Always Comes Evening.

“Kingdoms of Cloud and Moonmist: Casual Observations on the Harold Lamb influence in the Crusader tales of Robert E. Howard” by Brian Leno explores the influence of Lamb on Howard’s writings. Lamb was a noted writer of historic pulp fiction and Howard delved into the genre in the early 1930s with a few stories of his own set during the Crusades. I’ll admit to having read very little of Howard’s work in this genre, an oversight I plan to correct some day.

“The Hyperboreans Re-Imagined” by Morgan Holmes pieces together details on a little known race from the Hyborian Age, the Hyperboreans, offering a different vision of Hyberborea than the one presented in pastiches and role-playing games. This warlike nation lost a showdown with Aquilonia near the end of the Hyborian Age, and, crippled by the destruction of their army, fell to barbarian invasions. Pulling together evidence of various mercenaries and other surviving Hyberboreans from Howard’s tales, Holmes offers informed speculation on what the race and its empire may have been like.

“The Skald and the King” by Chris Green draws comparisons between Marvel Comics great Jack Kirby and Howard, two creative visionaries who burned with a fire to tell stories of larger-than-life heroes.

REH:TGR 13 concludes with “The Mighty Revelator Passes: Tributes and Farewells to Steve Tompkins.” These 10 mini-essays pay tribute to Tompkins, whose untimely death earlier this year extinguished the light of one of the brightest and most passionate minds in Howard studies. As I mentioned in a past post , I never met Steve, but e-mailed with him occasionally and read all of his essays I could find. His passing was and is a painful shock. I think Steve would have been humbled by the esteem in which he was held by guys like Rusty Burke, Mark Finn, Leo Grin, Al Harron, Scotty Henderson, Don Herron, Morgan Holmes, Deuce Richardson, Gary Romeo, Charles Saunders, and Sasser. For those who knew Steve, even peripherally, it’s difficult to get through this section with a dry eye. Access to these heartfelt tributes and farewells was worth the cover price alone.


David J. West said...

I'll to pick that up, that and any issues of the Cimmerian I can afford before they are destroyed.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi David, yes, I need to grab 5-6 issues that I've been meaning to pick up. Although I understand why Leo is doing this, I hate to see all this good work destroyed.