In Memorium–Robert E. Howard

Image3Today, June 11th, is the 77th anniversary of the death of Robert E. Howard.

Howard (or “REH”) is one of those writers who is well known by fans of a specific genre but not widely known to the general public.  Some may remember that he created CONAN and will probably think more about a certain ex-governor than they will the author.  I’d venture to say that many newer fans of fantasy and sword & sorcery fiction may know who REH is but haven’t really read much of his work.  (This is a symptom that is happening with Lovecraft as well.  Many know Lovecraft’s name but few people, even fans, have actually read his work.)

This is somewhat of a shame for REH in that his writing was often so much more than just fantasy or barbarians or even horror.  Especially powerful are his tales of his native Texas where REH’s voice is powerful and unique.

REH is truly one of the great figures in fantasy literature and one of the founders of the mini-genre of sword & sorcery with his many Conan stories.  A lost of what we see today in these genres is built upon the foundation that REH created.

But, I have a bit of a problem with REH.  (Which, if you’ve been reading my columns, you’ve probably been waiting for me to say.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of REH.  I’ve read and enjoyed the Conan stories along with the Soloman Kane tales as well as his pure adventure yarns.  But they’ve never made a big impact with me.  (To be fair, I know many people feel the same about William Hope Hodgson whom I have championed in the past and continue to do so at my other blog. Different strokes.)  I find myself mystified at the popularity of some of his horror stories particularly the often praised, “Pigeons from Hell”, which left me cold.  So, while I admire his achievements and applaud his reputation as a writer, I just don’t see it.  Which is why I only have a few REH books in my collection and will likely sit down again and see if my coolness towards him was simply an inability of me to appreciate him due to my youth.  (This has happened several times and so has the reverse.)

One of the issues I have with REH will likely not make me very popular either.  You see, REH killed himself.  At the far too young age of 30, REH blew his brains out.  A large part of that hinged upon the probably very unhealthy dependence/relationship he had with his mother who laid dying in a coma as REH sat in his car and pulled the trigger on the borrowed .380 Colt Pistol.

I am no stranger to dark thoughts.  I can safely say that one of the main reasons I am still on this planet is because I did not have access to dangerous items during particularly bad times.  So I understand some of the pain and emotions which drove him to this decision.  It is indeed a dark place when you find yourself considering this to be your only solution.

But part of me is angry too.  Angry that REH had so many other stories to tell that we will never hear.  Angry that he never got to experience so many things or the opportunity to add more to the lives of others.  Mostly, though, it just makes me sad because it was such a waste.

Our culture has a tendency sometimes to glamorize suicide.  Hemingway.  Cobain.  Even ones who die young due to their chosen lifestyle like Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison.  But there’s really nothing glamorous about this.  It wasn’t glamorous to REH’s father who had to deal with a son who now had a catastrophic head wound along with a wife dying from tuberculosis.  (REH was still alive for 8 hours before dying from his wound and his mother outlived him by not dying until the next morning.  There’s nothing noble about it despite biographers who explain Hemingway as being true to his ‘manly’ mystique.  It wasn’t ‘Conan-esque’ for REH to shoot himself.

It’s just a waste and that’s tragic.

What’s in a Game? Part 1

I have met people that play D&D, and only D&D, that call themselves gamers. Or perhaps their thing is Call of Cthulhu. Maybe they live and breathe GURPS. But when they play an RPG, they play the same one every time.  Or maybe they are heavily into the electronic gaming thing. Sure they play lots of different games, but they stick to one medium.   They don’t play table-top games of any stripe. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with that. If that’s what you like, by all means have a great time. I think  it’s kind of cute how they call themselves gamers, though.

I am a gamer. I have a bookshelf near my office that is just loaded with RPG systems. The reason they are near my office is because I don’t have room for them in my office with all the other books I keep there.   I’ve run or played most of them, and read all of them more than once. I have another shelf in my basement dedicated to board and card games. I had a young guest come to my house once, and when she came upstairs, she looked at me with eyes wide and said, “You have seventy four games.”

“Those are just the ones you can see”, I replied.

That was a couple of years ago. There are more now.

My one weakness as a gamer comes in the field of electronic games. My wife and I decided early on to keep video games to a minimum in our house, so we have a Wii. Our only other platform is the one I’m typing on now. But I don’t mind that, because electronic games, while they can be tremendous fun,  lack a key element I get out of a game.

I get to play with people.

Like many writers, I tend to be reserved around people I don’t know very well. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but I am usually the guy in the back watching what everyone else is doing.  Put me in a room full of total strangers and a game we can all agree to play, though, and I’m at the center of the action. Games provide an instant framework, a built in topic for conversation, and something fun to do all at once. You can learn a lot about a person by playing games with them.

So for the next few posts, I’m going to write about my favorite games

I’m particularly fond of co-operative games, where players win or lose as a team. There are many out there, from the day long epic battle that is Arkham Horror, to the quick playing Forbidden Tower. My personal favorite so far is a game called Pandemic, from Z-Man Games, in which researchers and scientists from the Center for Disease Control battle plagues in a race against time. It’s quick to learn and you can play a complete game in about an hour, an invaluable trait for a game when your family is as busy as mine gets. With the On The Brink expansion, it has enough variations to make the game extremely re-playable. I still haven’t played the Mutation variation, but I am eager to.  The game is challenging to win, and fun to play.

Another excellent co-operative game is Witch of Salem, from Kosmos. Set in H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, the Witch of Salem pits intrepid investigators against horrors from beyond the stars. A mad priest named Necron is trying to open a gate in Arkham Massachusetts to allow a Great Old One into the world. If he succeeds, the people that don’t get eaten immediately will go mad, then get eaten. Investigators travel the town, sealing gates and defeating monsters while they gather the information they need to stop Necron. I have yet to win this game in my several attempts, but I’ve come within one turn of winning twice, only to have hope snatched from my grasp at the last second.  Like Pandemic, you can play a full game in about an hour, give or take. It’s slightly more complicated than Pandemic as well, but it plays smoothly once you have the hang of it.

On the other end of the complexity scale is  Arkham Horror, from Fantasy Flight games. Like the Witch of Salem, Arkham Horror has ordinary mortals battling for survival in a town swarming with monsters zombies and . . .things. Another Lovecraft inspired game,it also features a Great Old One stirring and consequences most dire looming. While you can play Witch of Salem in an hour, Arkham Horror takes nearly that long just to set up, and can last eight hours or more easily. I have only played this game three times, and only finished it once. However, the game plays like a well written story, with quests, treasures and even some possible plot lines.  If you have a day to set aside, a game of Arkham Horror can make it a memorable one.

For an interesting twist on the co-operative game, I like Betrayal at House on the Hill, a re-release by Avalon Hill games. Several friends get together and explore the old House on the Hill for a lark, and wind up battling for their lives when one of them goes mad and tries to kill them. Or possibly they want to keep them from saving someone else, or maybe even take them home to their own dimension and save them in little jars on their shelves.  The beauty here is, you really don’t know. In terms of re-playablility, I have never seen any game that is the equal of Betrayal. The players build the House as they play, drawing room cards and placing them as they explore. At a randomly determined point in the game, a random player becomes a traitor. There are fifty possible haunt scenarios, each with its own set of winning conditions for each side. Most of the time you will know who the traitor is. Sometimes you won’t. And in a few cases, there isn’t a traitor at all, but something else threatens your lives and/or souls. So far, the game seems balanced so both the Traitor and the Heroes have an equal shot at victory. It has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, and fairly intuitive game play.

If you have friends over and an hour or so to spare (Or a day or two in the case of Arkham Horror,) a game can be a great way to have fun. The games I mention here have kept my family happily entertained for hours. I think they would do the same for you.

Happy Birthday, H.P. Lovecraft!

H. P. Lovecraft

Today is H. P. Lovecraft’s 122nd birthday.  Born in Providence, Rhode Island, HPL would go on to completely change the field of weird fiction.  His influence is virtually everywhere today from music to films to comics to literature to games to toys and much, much more.

My good friend Annie Riordan has a great article about all the stuff we wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for HPL.  Go read it here because she says it all a lot better than I could.

Lots of people will be posting about HPL’s life and works today so I’ll let them handle that.  What I want to talk about is what HPL meant to me.

When I was in high school in 1978, I wasn’t having a particularly good time.  I was bullied a lot and didn’t really have a lot of friends.  I spent most of my time alone either reading or drawing or watching TV.  One day, I was in the school library (where I spent virtually all of my time when I wasn’t in class), idly flipping through the card catalog, looking for something to read.  I’d always had an interest in horror (both movies and literature) as well as true crime which meant that I would have been at home with the Addams Family.  Anyway, this was back in the day when we didn’t have computer catalogs that can search the entire library in seconds.  If you wanted something, you had to look it up in the card catalog or just meander through the stacks until something caught your attention.

I was flipping through cards when I came upon this entry:

“Lovecraft, H.P. (1890-1937)

THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK AND OTHER STORIES”

This sounded interesting so I wrote down the name, title and call number and went into the stacks.  I’d never heard that name before and, in my ignorance, felt sure that it must be some kind of pen-name.  Surely that couldn’t be his real name.

This is the book that I found:

This is not the actual copy I read but one I bought years later because it was my first HPL book.

“Well, this is weird,” I thought so I took the book home.  I read it through three times before finally, reluctantly returning it to the school library.  The first story in the book was “The Outsider”.  When I reached that terminal climax, “… a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass”, I just held the book down in amazement.  Even though HPL would consider this to be one of his lesser stories, it had an amazing impact on me.  The story, narrated by someone who is forgotten and apart from not just humanity but life itself showed me that this was an author who understood me, who knew what it was like to be an “outsider”.

The Phillips Family Plot at Swan Point Cemetary in Providence, RI.

The next story in the book was “The Rats in the Walls” and I was instantly hooked.  I’d never know anyone who had written like Lovecraft and, until that point, I never knew that anyone could.  The next stories went by in a fevered dream; “Pickman’s Model”, “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Whisperer in Darkness”, “The Colour Out of Space”, “The Haunter of the Dark”, “The Thing on the Doorstep”, and “The Music of Erich Zann” were devoured eagerly.

I could no longer be stopped.

I made it my mission to find out more about this “H. P. Lovecraft” and read everything he had written.  Back in those days, it was a lot harder.  There was no Amazon so I had to haunt used book stores and check the Books In Print references for titles.  Eventually, I discovered Arkham House and when that first box arrived with copies of DAGON AND OTHER MACABRE TALES, THE DUNWICH HORROR AND OTHERS, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, THE HORROR IN THE MUSEUM, I was happier than I’d probably ever been in my adolescence.

To say that those books had an impact on me would be to vastly understate the event.  Finally, I had found an author who wrote the way that I felt and his view of man’s insignificance to the cosmos aligned with my own.  Eventually, I discovered that there was a magazine devoted exclusively to Lovecraft called, fittingly, LOVECRAFT STUDIES, published by Necronomicon Press in Rhode Island (I was living Connecticut at the time) and I ordered copies of those.  Shortly after, I began corresponding with the editor of the magazine, S. T. Joshi, who eventually invited me to visit him in Providence and meet others of similar ilk.

Close up of the family marker.

That was my first exposure to others who also enjoyed the writings of Lovecraft.  During that first visit, I met not only S.T., but Marc Michaud (publisher of Necronomicon Press), Jason Eckhardt (artist for Necronomicon Press), Bob Price (writer/editor/publisher of CRYPT OF CTHULHU) and Don & Mollie Burleson (Lovecraft scholars and writers).  As odd as it may seem, I was finally accepted.  I was a member of a group who shared my interests and didn’t think I was weird or ‘odd’.  Through Lovecraft and these friends I gained the confidence I never had before.  It gave me the confidence to become a writer myself.

None of which would have happened if I hadn’t found that slip in the card catalog back in 1978.  For all the great stories, I thank you, H.P.L., but I thank you mostly for helping me realize that I wasn’t alone in the universe and for all the friends and great people I’ve met through the years simply by saying, “Have you read H. P. Lovecraft?”

Forgotten Masters of the Weird Tale: William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson is considered one of the early masters of horror and science fiction and yet he is not nearly as well known today as he should be.  His novels earned praise from H. P. Lovecraft and his psychic detective, Carnacki, is still popular today.  Let’s took a look at this Forgotten Master!

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) is known not only as the writer of such sea horror tales as “The Voice in the Night”, “From the Tideless Sea”, The Ghost Pirates and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” but also for the pioneer science-fiction classics The Night Land and The House on the Borderland.  His works have been hailed by many critics and writers including H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.  Not surprisingly, his life was just as interesting as his stories.

WHH (known as “Hope” to his family and friends) was born in 1877, the second son of Essex clergyman Samuel Hodgson and his wife, Lizzie.  The family would eventually grow to include twelve children but three of WHH’s brothers would die in infancy before their second years.

By all reports, Samuel Hodgson was a difficult man to live with.  This is perhaps supported by the fact that he was constantly transferred throughout most of his career.  Samuel was moved at least twelve times during the years 1871-1890 and, in 1887, the family was sent to do missionary work in Ireland at Ardrahan, County Galway.  This would provide the setting for one of Hodgson’s most famous novels, The House on the Borderland.

During his youth, WHH was in love with the sea and made several attempts to run away but was always returned to his family.  Finally, through the intervention of his uncle, Reverend Thomas Lumsdon Brown, WHH was apprenticed to the firm of Shaw and Savill for four years as a seaman in the Merchant Marine in 1891.  This would begin his long association with the sea which would leave him with such a depth of anger and hatred that WHH had no choice but to express it in his many sea stories.

In 1898, WHH would rescue a fellow crewman from shark infested waters after the man fell overboard.  For this act, WHH received a medal from the Royal Human Society but even this could not keep him at sea which he finally abandoned for good in 1900.

After Samuel Hodgson’s death from throat cancer in 1892, the family was plunged into poverty.  This state would exist until the death of WHH’s paternal grandfather in 1900 when he left the family an inheritance.  Still, money would be a constant concern in the Hodgson home.

In 1901, WHH opened his “School of Physical Culture” in Blackburn.  After devoting much of his attention to ‘physical culture’ during his time at sea, WHH would remain an avid follower of health and strength development.  WHH had worked at increasing his own strength and physical power in order to protect himself from the bullying of other seamen even including some junior officers.  He would use this interest to write several articles on the subject which were published in various physical culture magazines.

During his European tour of 1902, Harry Houdini appeared at the Palace Theatre in Blackburn where his traditional challenge to escape from any handcuffs was accepted by WHH.  The result was a two hour ordeal for Houdini who finally escaped and would later remember the occurrence as one of the worst in his performing career.  Hodgson, with his knowledge of muscles and physical culture, had shackled Houdini so thoroughly that Houdini would still bear the physical scars from his escape twenty years later.

Unfortunately, the “School for Physical Culture” did not last and WHH closed it by 1903.  Having some little success at writing before, WHH now turned his attention to becoming a full-time writer.  For the next several years, WHH would spend his time writing his four novels and many of his most well-known short-stories.

Even though faced with many initial rejections, WHH persevered and his first short story, “The Goddess of Death” was published in 1906.  WHH would now publish frequently for the next ten years.  His first published novel, The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, appeared in 1907 followed by The House on the Borderland in 1908, The Ghost Pirates in 1909 and The Night Land in 1912.  Recent criticism has presented the theory that these novels were written in the reverse order of publication which would make The Night Land (a SF masterpiece) as possibly his first novel and The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” (a combination of adventure and horror) his last novel.

Each one of these novels is a remarkable achievement.  Together, they form much of Hodgson’s legacy.  In The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, an adventure on the high sea takes the reader through many supernatural events and ends in WHH’s own infamous Sargasso Sea, a part of the ocean choked by immoveable seaweed and giant sea monsters.  The Ghost Pirates chronicles the last voyage of a cursed vessel and the specters that haunt it.  In The House on the Borderland, a man finds himself in an isolated house that is besieged by outside forces and features passages of incredibly imaginative science fiction.  Hodgson’s masterpiece, The Night Land, presents an Earth in the far future when the sun has burnt out, humanity lives in a giant metal pyramid and there are great evils that walk the land.

Sadly, despite many positive reviews, WHH did not make a great deal of money with these novels.  This is likely why he abandoned novels to concentrate more on short stories.  Many of these tales would become recognized as classics of weird fiction including “The Voice in the Night” which has been reprinted many times and also adapted (most notably as the Japanese film, Matango, in 1963).  Adrift in the ocean, several sailors are hailed by a mysterious figure in a distant rowboat that begs their mercy for supplies for he and his fiancee but refuses to come closer or into the light.  When pressed, he tells the sailors a gruesome tale of horror that remains long after the story is read.

One of Hodgson’s most famous creations was the Sargasso Sea.  First appearing in print in “From the Tideless Sea” in 1906, this setting appears several times throughout WHH’s fiction.  It is a real spot in the North Atlantic Ocean where the tides cause the seaweed to grow large and thick.  In WHH’s fiction, this seaweed actually traps ships inside it much in the same way that ice traps ships in the Artic Ocean.  But, to make matters worse, the Sargasso Sea is the home of many huge sea-monsters who constantly attack those ships unlucky enough to get caught in the weeds.

Undaunted, WHH created one of his most famous characters, the occult investigator, Carnacki.  Appearing in several stories in 1910 (collected into an anthology in 1913), the Carnacki stories remain one of the most popular of WHH works.  Carnacki is a ‘ghost-finder’ but, where he differs from more traditional psychic detectives, Carnacki uses modern devices such as photography and vacuum tubes to combat the evil.  “The Whistling Room” is one of the best of these stories and remains WHH’s most reprinted story.  Carnacki himself has remained popular and new stories by other authors featuring the ‘ghost-finder’ have appeared and the character himself has made an appearance in Alan Moore’s graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

In 1913, WHH marries Bessie G. Farnworth and the couple move to France apparently in an effort to save money.  WHH continues writing but most of his most notable stories are now behind him.  When England declares war on Germany in 1914, the couple returns to England and WHH joins the Officer Training Corps of the University of London.

Ever patriotic, WHH receives his commission as a Lieutenant in the 171st Battery of the Royal Field Artillery but, while training new soldiers, WHH is thrown from his horse and suffers a broken jaw and a concussion.  Due to his injuries, WHH is discharged and sent back to his family in Borth.

But Hodgson refused to sit out the war on the sidelines.  Due in great part to his lifelong physical training, WHH recovered and re-enlists in October, 1917.  He is assigned to the 11th Brigade which is sent to Ypres.  From there, he joins the 84th Battery which, in turn, relieves a forward Battery south of Rugby Dump.

In March of 1918, the 84th Brigade takes over positions at Brombeek and suffers heavy gas and high velocity shelling at the Tourelle Crossroads.  After being relieved by Belgian Artillery, the 84th marches to Ploegsteert area and takes position at Le Touguet Berthe.  A German attack briefly hospitalizes WHH but he recovers in time for the 84th Battery to withdraw and set up a Forward Observation Post (FOP).

Despite it being virtually a ‘suicide mission’, WHH volunteers for duty at the FOP with another soldier.  On April 19th, 1918, the FOP suffers a direct hit from German mortar fire which kills both men and leaves little in the way of remains.  They are buried by French soldiers on the eastern slope of Mont Kemmel in Belguim.

After WHH’s death, Bessie returned to her family and oversaw WHH’s literary estate until her death in 1943.  At that point, the estate reverted to WHH’s sister, Lissie, who handled it (not the best way) until her own death in 1959.

Since WHH’s death, his fame has increased.  Despite some episodes of rarity, much (if not all) of Hodgson’s fiction is now available either online or via Print on Demand publishers.  As we move towards the 100th anniversary of his death, let us take up the banner of this talented author and carry it forward into a new century!

Please feel free to visit the William Hope Hodgson Blog for more about this great writer!

(I would like to acknowledge my debt to those Hodgson biographers who have gone before me.  Much of the information here is a result of their work so I thank R. Alain Everts, Sam Moskowitz and Jane Frank.—Sam Gafford)

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