|Ken Lizzi, me, and Deuce, on sacred ground.|
The moment I became spellbound with the worlds of Robert E. Howard.
SSOC spoke to me on a level my then-favorite Avengers or Captain America could not. It was dangerous, barbaric, sexy, violent. Adult, with articles and photography to accompany the gorgeous black and white interior art, welcoming 10- or 11-year-old me to the savage Hyborian Age.
This wonderful, fortuitous find set me on a lifelong love of Howard and the subgenre of fantasy he founded, sword-and-sorcery. Little did I know that 40 years later it would also lead to an unforgettable trip to his hometown.
This past weekend I traveled to Cross Plains for 2023 Robert E. Howard Days. This was not a lightly-made decision. I live in Massachusetts, some 1600 miles from the small town in West Texas that Howard called home. With a wife and family, domestic obligations, and a busy professional career to manage, there is never a good time to do something like this, even though Howard Days had been on my bucket list for years.
|Part of the whole wide world of Cross Plains.|
The time had finally come to head to the mecca of all things Howard and sword-and-sorcery.
Last Thursday I flew into Dallas Fort Worth and picked up a rental car. Shortly after 5 p.m. Ken, Deuce and I arrived in Cross Plains. The Howard House had closed for the day but two and a half days of non-stop celebrations were about to begin.
Thinking this could be a once in a lifetime trip, I wanted to see it all—the town, the house, the gravesite, the panel sessions. I also wanted to give myself adequate time to hang out and talk to the throng of Howard fans and Howard Days volunteers that make this event so special.
Deuce had wise words for navigating this dilemma: “Balance the living and the dead.”
So, I gave it my best go to honor the man and explore the town while also spending time with as many attendees as I could. I feel pretty good about the balance I struck.
|With Jeff Shanks (left) and Mark Finn.|
Far too few know the name Robert E. Howard and the opportunity to talk shop and swap REH nerdity comes very infrequently. At Howard Days its endless. “What’s your Howard origin story?” “What’s your favorite Conan tale?” “Have you read his westerns?” These spontaneous conversations happen in line to get your barbecue, perusing the tables at the silent auction, and especially in the evenings at the pavilion. It’s glorious.
I offered up “In a far country: The Frontier Fantasy of Robert E. Howard,” making the case for Howard as a writer experiencing the absence of a recently closed frontier, unlike his literary hero Jack London who experienced the gold rush of the Klondike first-hand. This absence caused Howard to turn to fantasy and frontiers within. I indulged the audience and myself with a few passages from Jack London and REH, which I greatly enjoyed reading aloud. It seemed well received and I expect it and the other panels to eventually appear on YouTube, courtesy of videographer Ben Friberg.
|The atmosphere at the pavilion made it extra sword-and-sorcery|
Among the more unexpected experiences was feeling like a quasi-celebrity. I must have signed at least 20-25 copies of Flame and Crimson, Hither Came Conan, New Edge #0, and other odds and ends. Watching former Weird Tales editor John Bettancourt select Flame and Crimson as his raffle prize at the S&S panel and note that he had been looking forward to reading it was a strange, rewarding feeling.
So, a lot of socializing and hanging out. But it’s also important to honor the dead.
|Thank you Project Pride!|
We also folded in a visit to Brownwood to visit the family gravesite. We timed our trip just right, pulling into the sprawling cemetery in the golden sunlight of the late afternoon and paid our respects to Howard and his parents, laid side-by-side. Someone had left behind a book and figurine; I wish I had thought to do something similar.
I left with a more detailed depiction of Howard’s environs. All the tours including a bus tour of greater Cross Plains were absolutely worth doing. I found it to be a charming little community that feels a little like a relic of a lost age, with a few modern updates (a Dollar Store and the like).
• Witnessing the incredible dedication of the volunteers that makes Howard Days possible. The Cross Plains community rallies together to do wonderful things, and preserve Howard’s legacy is a year-round effort.
• Buying enough books to break the back of a camel and strain the uttermost capacity of my suitcase. As I shoved volumes in every pocket and cavity I was advised my clothes were expendable. My haul included a pair of winning bids for two large stacks of Fantastic magazine (including the first appearance of Fritz Leiber’s “Bizaar of the Bizarre”) and a couple new hardcovers from the Foundation, the collected letters and poetry. Perhaps my favorite find was a 1979 calendar illustrated by the late great Ken Kelly. I'll share a pic of my hoard later.
• Drinking beer at Red Gap Brewing on a gorgeous day while listening how Foundation board member John Bullard assembled the collected letters of REH for the second edition. Monster effort worthy of an award.
• Attending the Robert E. Howard Foundation awards. Clapping for many deserving winners including John Bullard and Bill Cavalier, Willard Oliver, and Jason Ray Carney. I have not read Dennis McHaney’s Robert E. Howard in the Pulps (winner: The Atlantean), but was very impressed thumbing through Deuce’s copy. That definitely earned its award, too.
• Listening to experts like Bobby Derie, Finn, Shanks, Louinet, guest of honor John Betancourt, and others at the panel sessions. The theme this year was “100 Years of Weird Tales” (founded 1923, still publishing) and the panelists were deeply informed experts and a pleasure to listen to. Derie in particular struck me as a walking encyclopedia of the Weird.
• Taking a break from Howard to visit Woody’s, a classic car and baseball memorabilia museum just across from the Howard house. This contained an immaculately maintained collection of stunning automobiles once owned by a wealthy private donor.
|What's best in life? This.|
• Working up the courage to read a poem myself, “The Rhyme of the Viking Path.” I gave the last few verses some appropriate barbaric emphasis and was pleased with the outcome and the crowd reaction.
• Talking heavy metal with a fellow fan as we waited for the poetry readings to commence (I need to check out Dimmu Borgir).
• Walking across the same scenic iron bridge that Howard once traversed, which later inspired a scene from “The Whole Wide World.”
• Chatting about Red Nails and Margaret Brundage with the great Fred Blosser—a dude I was reading FORTY YEARS ago in the pages of SSOC—in the Cross Plains public library as I scanned through REH manuscripts and a beautiful collection of Weird Tales magazines. Surreal.
• Watching Master and Commander with Deuce and Ken while drinking Shiner Bock, a Texas classic.
• Conversing with a great group about all things Howard and S&S during our final evening at the pavilion. I learned that Will Oliver is working on a Howard biography and is as passionate about the works of Karl Edward Wagner as I am. In short, finding my tribe.
So, there you have it. Robert E. Howard Days 2023 proved to be a quirky, fun, charming, welcoming, and utterly unique event that every Robert E. Howard fan ought to attend at least once in their lifetime.
I wish I could have done more, but 2 ½ days pass quickly. And I suppose that’s what return trips are for. Many prophesized that if I came once to Howard Days it would be forever in my blood, and I’d be back again.
I suspect one day I will.
|Here's to Howard Days.|