An ancient reprint REHupa article from Pale Rider
This issue is the last Highwayman / North Texas Ballistics Review (remember, this is a reprint article from the past --LR), the end of my first membership in REHupa, and, also, the final installment on the particular subject matter that has interested me for a year.
It has been more than fun, but I would like to leave that subject until later and get on with discussing the writing of Bob Howard.
When I joined in spring '97, I wasn't aware that there was a specific subject matter here for me, but I imagine it was fairly clear to others. Why was Howard's writing different and better? It was in my conversation all the time, but to me the subject was like the mountain of glass in a fairy tale.
I then learned to break the writing process down into stages. This was
old stuff to you, but new to me. I have fiddled around with several versions
of this, most shown only on the internet mailing list. The current version
runs like so:
1) The author has inescapable interests, hopefully unique to him.
2) An idea in debt to these interests forms in his mind, and expresses itself to him.
3) A story embodying this idea or these ideas begins to take shape in the author's mind, as it relates to him, the writer.
4) If the moon is right, or the stars, or he doesn't forget, or if he needs a new carpet, he begins to consider how the story might be told to others.
5) Eventually, maybe, perhaps, he commences with the specific plotting and wording of the story.
This last is the step in Howard's authorship which has most engaged me this year, especially since I find myself unable to lift the whole process at once.
To finish, if the story is so fortunate as to find a publisher, it then leaves home and looks for a place in the minds of readers. After this the story belongs primarily to them, and for most purposes becomes whatever they say it is.
Aside from my personal enjoyment of Howard's writing, which brought me to this dance in the first place, and the fact that Howard seems to have taken notice of this transition of possession from writer to readers, and planned for it in ways that other writers do not and have not (mostly in predicting the readers reaction and meeting it), I am less interested in the nature of the stories past this last phase. This attitude, unfortunately, sets me adrift from most of what fandom is about. Well, well, young Sir, never take shame. Attitudes change and this one might, too.
The second piece of good fortune that befell me here was the idea (or actually, the light that burst forth on the road to Damascus, more or less) that a writer who produced authentic emotion by means of his work might better have his work examined by means of emotion. Wow. Stunner. This led to a way of at least lifting a portion of Howard's technique for examination, and led to a reasonable number of generalizations concerning Howard's technique. It also led to a much smaller number of less clear generalizations as to Howard's themes, plotting, and meaning.
I guess it would be good and normal article writing, and laudably dreary and traditional besides, to recapitulate the whole series of piecemeal realizations and discoveries that I have had and have made this year, but let's just boot that overboard, and get to the Big Mac.
After all, these findings are simple and conventional enough, and for the most part thoughtful students of Howard have their own little posse of similar observations. What they boil down to, what they present themselves as showing when viewed from sufficient distance, is that Howard possessed the word skills of a great writer.
Since he was a great writer, this is not surprising. If I have added anything by forming my own little gang of realizations, it probably consists of a guess at the tactical uses to which Howard applied his writing skills, and in an assertion that Howard's work and life were primarily concerned with the world's violence.
I think that Howard realized that most of the peace and progress which the world enjoyed were based on perversely engineered uses of violence, or unexpected and unpredicted results of raw, simple, violence. This is a view that is expensive to hold, a very high priced truth. It means that even in it's most benign aspects, the world is only a pinprick away from madness, and that madness is what the world is built of and on. This suggests that his best commercial character, the dangerous but surprisingly uncruel Conan, is perhaps a sane man in an insane world. This line of ideas is not a bond-builder among men.
Some of you may be aware that, after forming a concept about the source of Howard's power, I have been stalled on the main quest. I have been just piddling around hawking trade goods for two mailings. I called it loss of interest or lack of ideas, but when the curtain finally rose, it turned out that the real problem was a reluctance to take the next step. When studying writing, the next step is to write.
There is no point in building this up. Most of the writing took place
as a single straight shot that happened in the course of composing a letter
to Rusty Burke, and I can just show you the stuff, complete with zits and
Subject: dangerous days Date: Sun, 08 Feb 1998 21:29:30 -0800 From: Larry Richter <firstname.lastname@example.org> To: Rusty Burke <email@example.com>
I'm busy on a new 800 page Conan pastiche in collaboration with Robert Jordan, and the title is giving trouble. Here are the choices we've come up with so far:
Conan the Intractable
Conan the Comatose
Conan the Insufferable
Conan the Catatonic
Conan the Unrequited
Conan the Unextenuated
Conan the Unattributed
Conan the Reference Maven
What we have so far begins at dusk, in the distant Stygian outpost of Mortor. Already darkness has fallen on the unnaturally silent streets of the stone city, although flaming sunset still lights the towers and surrounding peaks that glower down on shadowed walls and citadels below.
At the unmanned city gates a trio of gaunt riders approach, the jingle of their worn metal strangely muted in the growing gloom. They cross the band of deeper gloom beneath the great entrance arch, as phantoms pass from dark into greater dark.
"Here's an unchancey thing," spoke the gaunt, bearded rider, "Why are the gates of the city unguarded?"
"They are never guarded," spoke an urchin, hidden half by the gatepost and half by the shadows, "They do not need to be. None wish to enter here."
"Why then do none enter, boy?" spoke the third rider, a gray man so sere and undistinguished that his scarred and dinted armor seemed more empty than occupied
"Many enter. None wish to," said the boy, "But if you would know more, let Conan ask."
Beard and Grayface gave each other a sudden, questioning look, and then turned it toward the mighty figure seated astride its horse, moving on iron-shod hooves uneasily between them, and then turned it to the child.
Beard gave the street-soiled urchin a closer appraisal than at first he had favored him with. "So. You recognize the Cimmerian, do you?" To Grayface he said, "This may bode better for us than it had seemed to."
The boy gave the trio a steady stare, both wary and bold. "All know of Conan. But if I am to aid you, let him ask it." The boy's fear was manifest, but no more than his determination. His lesser audience of two regarded him steadily.
Presently, with a flicker of his eye to Grayface, the bearded one turned in the saddle and addressed the great mailed rider. "Conan. Would you anything of this street-creature?"
The mailed figure stirred, turned its head, and said in a sepulchural voice, "Lead me to the Great Hall!"
"A puppet!" gasped the child. "A man of wood!"
"Damnation!" With a leap seemingly impossible for one so old and withered, Grayface flung himself headlong from horseback and clamped the boy, midway in his act of turning in terror, in a grip of iron. It was as though a scarecrow armed in dusty tin had gigged and speared a starveling puppy there in the deserted square. But the grayfaced one's lips moved and sputtered as if possessed of a cryptic life of their own. "Damn it! I told you! Dust everywhere. Clean it, I said, give a craftsman's care to a craftsman's work!" As he gnashed and spoke his hand fumbled at a dagger slung from his belt.
"Lin. Lin!" spoke Beard, still mounted. "Leave the blade be! You always were one to make crisis of fortune! Talent is to be found where it is found, and this little cutpurse was quicker on the uptake by +IV or +V than men who would have been thought his better. Think! Vision that pierces this gloom, and a decisive mind. Hold him!" The bearded one reined his mount toward the struggling pair, the slow hoofstrikes ringing in hollow echo from the worn waystones under foot. He rode so close that the bridled head of his mount whickered over the boy's shoulder, and his helmeted head hung over the face of the child like the sorrowing head of a mother over the coffin of her baby.
"I know you," said Beard. "I know you and all that there is to be known of you. You have not mother, nor father, nor master. You know not even where you were born, or when, yet unlike these others who dispise you, you know that life is to be lived. To be kept, not lost. You will make what you must of your days to accomplish this. Yet it is long since you have eaten. With your inconsiderable strength your crime avails you little, and even with your acuteness of eye and brain, it is a question whether you will ever, surrounded by the hate of these others, live to be strong." His eyes glittering, the bearded one drew his head back. "Yet we too live by our wits in a cold world of dangerous freedom, and once long ago we were little different than you." He leaned again, closer this time. "Boy, opportunity can come, even to you. When it comes, it must be seized or lost. We are your chance, of life, and strength, and of knowledge. Make your mind up now to leave your stolen crusts and serve us. We have much for a lad of ability and bitter courage to do, and how far the wisdom we impart to you will carry you, for wealth, or glory, or for gory revenge, is for you alone to decide."
A moment passed.
"Food first," said the boy.
Beard gave Grayface a triumphant glance, and then turned to the pouch behind his saddle. With a spasm of disgust too sharp and stong for his for his worn and lacklife features to convey, Grayface gave the boy a shake and then dropped him sprawling onto the uncaring stones of the vast and darkened court. Bread placed in the small dirty hand disappeared, as though magic did indeed venture abroad with the coming of night.
"Now, little one," Beard said with a smile. "Do as the Mighty One did bid you. Lead us to the Great Hall."
Boy, was that fun. It went off on a direction of its own, too, there was a conclusion that it was supposed to come to by this time that was quite different. I feel better now.
I looked back over it, and it is a real shame that it is not nearly as much fun to read as it is to do.
The above started as a parody with a light heart, and
quickly became otherwise. Fortunately or unfortunately it can't be finished,
so for those who have to know endings, here is the plot:
"the modified idea was to have the three come to Mortor, enter the Great Hall, look for the registration desk, and suddenly find that they're not in the right city (Stygian reads right to left and they screwed the pooch). Instead of making it to Tormor for the cimmeracon at the Great Hall Hilton, they're in Mortor where the Great hall is a lair of monsters. They are petrified, an unfortunate preview of the immediate future, as like in one of the Sprague stories the demon specialty of the house is to make statues of men. As they crouch in terror around the hero of oak, the monster approaches, never seen but betraying its presence by waves of rippling light that wash and flash across the walls in the vastness. Whoops, I detect power phrasing coming on... down, boy...
Anyway, the first wave of magic power hits the puppet, it jumps and swears and climbs the carvings like a striped ape -- I guess you get the simple "magic of unintended results" twist -- Beard and Lin are dumbfounded in their last moments on the edge of eternity, the kid yells for help, Conan yanks him out of there, and when the kid reaches the window where the guy is at, he finds him, mighty limbs and all, sorting through the gimcracks they had had draped on the puppet, looking for what is actually useful, speculating on the chances he can get the kid set up here in Mortor so he, Conan, can have a place to shoot a game of pool without checking his back between times of looting the surrounding communities. Before fainting the kid asks how such stupid wizards were able to ensorcle him. Conan laughs and says Hell, they didn't ensorcle him, they made him out of wood --but he's OK now! Toothy smile. The end."
Clearly things got a little off course.
I explained it to myself (and to Burke) as a demonstration of a possible Howard-like writing process.
Demos, simulations, and re-creations of techniques have limitations, whatever the subject. We make a veritable performance art of recreating former ways of life, but if you check the details you find that we can't separate our present wealth and power from what we try to do to illuminate the past.
This is true even if you are only playing at the intense style of a master writer of departed days. Perhaps by holding the demo in an appropriate state of contempt, we can draw some insights from it, but that is about all.
Here is the story of the story, blow by blow: In the beginning, all is play. I have in mind a simple two jest parody in the Hyborian style. The color-word, dark-light contrast opening is being played with here for joy, the S sound is just slitherin' all over the place, and its plenty of sand in the box for everyone, Eh?
At the word "gaunt" in the next paragraph, this ceases to be a game. If I knew why that word caused a change, I would have powers far beyond those of Mortal Men, and you would have to look out for me. But all I know is that this is the point where the change happens.
By the time "worn metal" hits the keyboard I can hear and feel and am living in this story. The thrill is real. It suddenly seems important to make this paragraph evocative, as Howard would.
My internal attention begins to flicker back and forth between me, this outer me, and someplace else deeper that would be hard to locate for you. This continues until the writing stops, later. And no, I am not actually a King on the planet Uranus.
The next paragraph becomes A Messy Point. I stick my dagger into the idea that the first principle of Bob is to not mystify the reader. Bob tells all, and thrills your rotten carcass anyway. So I look for something I am stalling on so I can tell it. The puppet Conan seems fairer if exposed sooner. When I get to the end of this set of short paragraphs, I find that directing of the readers attention to Conan/Pinnochio is the point of the thing.
The next part, where the scurvy knaves try to trick the boy, is deliberately written, and I can claim it. The mysterious part is done, the trigger spring is set. My job now is to snap the trap in an honest fashion, straightforward and fair, so that the reader can enjoy the surprise if I can manage to produce one. This is simple and is as good as a visit home.
The worst-done part in the middle concerns the question of what the boy expects as a result of his request. If he is fully knowledgable, we have no one to be amazed with, and if he is fully ignorant, we have been taken in by a chance event. I intend for him to have acted out of his heart. I do not know that I actually manage this.
Where Beard makes his bid to recruit the little Fagin is where I start to steal from Dave Smith. I don't know how many of you bought the chapbook Engor's Sword Arm from Morgan, or how many who bought it read it. Too damn bad if the number is low, because Dave has one of the best confrontation scenes ever, anywhere, by anyone, embedded in the climax of this story. The frame of this scene is derived there. For what it is worth, stealing like this feels more like following some friend in trying a fancy dive off the old tree at the swimmin' hole than bank robbing.
In this scene, the boy partly represents me and partly everyone else Sprague has ever fooled or tempted, from publisher to collaborators, of which he has an army. I have him doing very disguised things dealing with and drawing from worries that I had bottled up at this time.
By now, as you may have figured out, I am actually working as a team with some mysterious force or little guy inside me, and am not really in the material world. You might be interested to know that, when you fall into this magic concentration thing that I was in, and commune with unknown regions of self (the scariest and most pleasurable thing about this experience), well then, the whole story is continuously happening at once, over and over, while the part of you that puts fingers on the keyboard is dealing, or trying to, with the current sentence.
The me in the front office was concerning myself about details, such as making the pattern of sentences ring. It was like dealing with words, as, meanwhile, somebody else there beside me made suggestions that I found appealing. That business about someone standing at your shoulder may not be accurate, but it is not all bull either.
This little guy forms his views according to a much more dramatic light. He does not know that Fess parker is not really Davy Crockett. All times that have ever happened to him are all happening to him still, and all at once. He knows everything about the fear and courage that Howard uses to connect to us in his writing, but little about contract law.
This inside guy may be more than a little wrong, and more than a little
primitive, but if I could wise him up to the real world, oh what places
we could go. He writes this section for me along the general lines of Smith's
example. All I do is listen, and when he says something that rangs, I write
it down. We backtrack and discuss things a lot. Here was the emotional
fuel, as best I can figure:
1.) I have been worried since first making progress along these lines that the results might only be useful to Pastiche-writing scum. No comment on who such scum might be.
2.) What I have learned lately is not worlds away from what L. Sprague de Camp knew about Howard's skills in the 60's and 70's, up to a point where Sprague could no longer follow. From this, I have formed a more complex view of de Camp. Not more positive, certainly sadder. I am sure de Camp once intended to learn what Howard knew (probably thinking of it as absorbing the technique of a gifted rube), but had to stop. He says, at length, he could not follow Bob because Bob was crazy, and he, de Camp, was not. I think this seemingly urbane man found he would have had to grow to follow Bob, and worst of all, view himself clearly.
3.) I was raised in a television studio, the kind with all-tube amplifiers. I kid you not, I predate video tape. The men working there did not say "Get Lost, Kid," when I screwed up. They said "You on the boom rig: where's your union card?" Old though I now be, at heart I still love that place. TV, the worn and faithless shillwoman, means something to me yet. It may be a bit like growing up in a whorehouse, but without meeting so many police.
So, I had wondered if I could bring myself to surrender some time and all self-respect, and try to help stop the current REH based (hah!) TV show and maybe the awful movie yet to come from being such disasters. The risk of this personal disaster of being allowed to do so is actually zero. The failings of these productions are deliberate and by design. Still, I thought about it, and the little guy knew I had. End of story of story.
Partly thanks to comments by Ed Waterman and Rod Hunsicker, I now recognize this intensity of communication with self stuff that I experienced as something which has happened to me and many others before, Ed's poet mother among them. It comes in times of complete engagement and strong concentration, except that when beating steel on an anvil or driving a car too fast, things don't get so personal.
I think this experience of focus, or lucidity, or inward communication, could be addictive and is almost certainly dangerous. It gave me problems to deal with immediately, and a few that lingered after. A death defying way to write.
To finish up, I am going to quote from "Chronologies Twist in the Wind"
which I stuck up on the mailing list. I'm getting tired, I don't presently
know a way to say this better, and this was written when I was still amazed
by all the above. So:
"First, it is a living process, it just won't go unless you are living the story as you write it. It slews out of control all the time. It is rockets on ice. If you have anxieties or concerns or business in progress, it dredges them up in strange ways and sticks them in the story in forms that you don't recognize until later. Your goal can easily prove to be out of reach, placed out of reach by the very thing that you took for your guide at the outset, and darkness is the emotional quality it projects best. You go with it because it delivers. It can be, it may be, a message from yourself to yourself.END ANCIENT TRANSMISSION:
It is the most pleasurable writing experience I have had, and on reflection I think that it is dangerous. Eventually you would want it and dread it equally. A very strong mind could both feel it, do it, and control it, but as often as not the writer would be reading the story with surprise after having written it. And he would have almost no idea if a given story were bad or good....
...the only real connection to each other that these stories have is the inside of the head of Robert E. Howard. Even if there seems to be a long term story line, with a map, with some measure of consistency, even if there is a prospective outline, I think this is detail. I think each of these stories are one-off examples, that what they have to recommend them is the internal presence of Howard's living thought as it transpired at the time of their writing, presented within a set of general rules that suit such a source of storytelling.
I don't think Howard can be copied, but I think styles that draw from his beginnings can be devised, ones that have heart above head yet vibrate with power instead of sensitivity. I think that a writer who chose whole-heartedly to strike out in such a direction could expect life to get harder quick."