Monday, May 1, 2023

There and back again from Massachusetts to Cross Plains: A recap of 2023 Robert E. Howard Days

Ken Lizzi, me, and Deuce, on sacred ground.
That Saturday morning long ago remains fresh in my mind. The day I stumbled across a hoard of Savage Sword of Conan magazines

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.
But this year the stars and planets aligned. Two dudes whom I knew mainly from online interaction, Deuce Richardson and Ken Lizzi, had rented a house in neighboring Cisco, so I had company and a place to sleep. 

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.
Meeting Rusty Burke, Fred Blosser, Patrice Louinet, Chris Gruber, Mark Finn, Jeff Shanks, John Bullard, Gary Romeo, Will Oliver, Dierk Gunther and others was incredible. I felt like I already knew many of them from YouTube videos, articles, and podcasts and the like, but talking and shaking hands with them all made it tangible. It was wonderful meeting fellow S&S aficionados Jason Waltz, Keith West, Jason Ray Carney, Aaron Cummins, Chuck E. Clark, and many, many others whose names I’ve unfortunately forgotten or failed to ask.

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.

The pavilion.
I thought for my first trip I’d simply soak it all in, but instead found myself serving on two speaker panels. On the first, the Glenn Lord Symposium I found myself sandwiched between two PhDs. But both proved incredibly gracious and down-to-earth. I enjoyed Dierk Gunther’s paper which attempted the formidable task of answering the charges of racism in “The Vale of Lost Women.” Will Oliver’s session was fascinating, offering up statistical evidence including recorded interviews with oil field workers to corroborate that Cross Plains was plagued by crime and violence during the oil bloom. This colored Howard’s worldview and creative output and helps to explain why he thought enemies might be lurking around the next corner.

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
On Saturday I served on a second panel at the pavilion, “Sword-and-sorcery revival,” an informal, impromptu discussion of the recent upsurge in S&S publishing and authorship. I would describe the panel setting as a raucous tavern in the heart of the Maul. I’ve both run and attended many conferences, and at some point attendees hit panel fatigue and want to get down to the business of socializing. We hit the tipping point midway through and it was hard to control the volume in the pavilion; some 30 or so were quite interested in the panel but others were more interested in beer and conversation. I get it. We soldiered on and gave a pretty good rundown of current sword-and-sorcery publishers, authors, other outlets (podcasts, comics, etc.) and in general stoked enthusiasm for the revival of a genre Howard started back in 1929 with “The Shadow Kingdom.” John Bullard helped us greatly with the panel by making flyers and securing space. Thanks John!

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!
Nothing can quite prepare you for the first view of Robert E. Howard’s home and ultimately the humble bedroom where did the majority of his writing. Others have made the same observation many times, but its stunning that Howard was able to birth and deliver such vivid creations to the world from such small, prosaic quarters. It’s a testament to his unique genius. The volunteer docents who serve as tour guides, women from the Cross Plains community, were patient and wonderful. I learned that Howard’s father, Isaac, treated bloodied oil field workers right in the Howard home. One docent noted poetically that blood has seeped its way into the roots of the home.

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).

Other highlights:

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.
Hearing “Cimmeria” recited aloud on the front porch of the Howard house in Italian, Spanish, Gaelic, and Latin. The first man up after “Cimmeria” recited “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” FROM MEMORY, a tough act to follow. Best performance went to some dude from North Carolina who ROARED a poem Howard wrote about the joys of drinking and fighting, punctuated with accusations addressed to “You Sons of Adam!” He had us all laughing and cheering. Howard would have approved.

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.


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing! My first visit was last year and coming all the way from Norway. I'm going back next year for sure.

Brian Murphy said...

Norway? Wow. Makes my trip from the East Coast look like a Sunday drive.

I hope when you go you recite "Cimmeria" in Norwegian.

Anonymous said...

Nice! Just like every August issue of REHupa when the members give their report after attending Howard Days. See, you too could be a member. No pressure man.

It was a pleasure meeting, talking with, and drinking beer with you. A good time had by all. Look forward to seeing you again in Cross Plains.


Brian Murphy said...

:) Will putting on the full-court press!

It was awesome hanging out. Unforgettable trip.

Terry Allen said...

Glad you enjoyed your trip so much , planning our 3rd visit over the pond next year.

Javier A. Flores Sárraga said...

As a fellow first-time attendee, I echo many of your sentiments on the experience! And it was lovely meeting and briefly conversing with you there.

Brian Murphy said...

Nice, glad you'll be back Terry!

Javier, were you the one who asked me to sign New Edge #0?

Javier A. Flores Sárraga said...

That was indeed me!

Brian Murphy said...

Nice! Enjoy that issue of Skelos #1 :).

John Bullard said...

It was great getting to meet and talk with you and Ken, and it's always a hoot seeing Deuce. I hope y'all return to Howard Days, soon. Now, back to the neverending letters updates...

JHardy said...

Well done summary of Howard Days. Enjoyed your participation on the S&S panel on Saturday. You are kind to overlook the rude behavior of many during the panel. Talking over speakers is just plain wrong. Step outside the pavilion if you want to talk. Impromptu or not, it's still a panel of speakers trying to present their thoughts on a subject. Being a former teacher who attended numerous assemblies where teachers would start socializing while speakers were presenting (god help the First Aid speaker!) and sat there both bewildered (at the irony of teachers always complaining that students don't listen) and irritated (for the speakers) I found it a similar experience. But life goes on and you and the fellow panelists handled it well. Great book BTW. An informative, entertaining read.

Brian Murphy said...

John: I'll be back!

JHardy: Appreciate the kind words of the summary, and my book. Unfortunately the panel was bit of a mess, though I still had fun. I'd be up for redoing it online at some point.