MICHAEL H. PRICE: Conan the Oilpatch Roughneck
Devotees of comics and the high-adventure pulp magazines know the story almost by heart: Before he had turned 30, Robert E. Howard, of Cross Plains, Texas, had staked out several prominent stations in American literature. He was a poet of Homeric promise, for example, and a contributor to the H.P. Lovecraft school of cosmic terrors – and a prolific South-by-Southwestern regionalist and steward of cowboy lore. And then some.
Had Howard lived past 30, he likely would have outgrown the shirtsleeves-fiction arena to find formal acceptance as a major literary figure. But the pulps – those cheaply produced mass-market publications that thrived during the first half of the 20th century – made an ideal proving ground, and a lasting monument to a talent too big to confine to a category.
A constant element is a sense of Howard’s nomadic upbringing in rural Texas, during a time when the first oil-and-gas booms were transforming much of the state into a barbaric land of violence and mercenary opportunism. In a recent book called Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, Austin-based scholar Mark Finn makes plain the influence that the boom-town phenomenon, with its brawling new breed of citizenry known as roughnecks, worked upon Bob Howard.
Had he lived to become a more seasoned artist, Howard (1906-36) probably would not have outgrown his appetite for rambunctious adventure, whether or not he might have left behind the characters who had earned for him an eager and widespread readership. Such recurring characters include a trouble-prone Westerner named Jeopardy Grimes and the Puritan avenger Solomon Kane. To say nothing of Conan the Cimmerian, the barbaric warrior whose exploits have overshadowed the greater range of Howard’s work.
Conan remains an especially bankable attraction, 71 years after the author’s death. Dark Horse Comics offers a mounting series of new exploits, written nowadays by my old-time chum and blues-and-comics collaborator Timothy Truman. And many people still picture Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with perhaps a smidgen of accuracy in terms of his Conan movies of a generation ago.
But Howard’s restless spirit is gaining ground on his fictional creation.
Finn’s Blood & Thunder (Monkey Brain Books; $19.95) represents more than a perceptive portrait. Taken together, separate biographical studies of Howard by Rusty Burke and Mark Finn form a persuasively definitive portrait. To a Southwestern region that has reawakened during the past several years to the possibilities of oil-and-gas exploration – a consequence of mounting natural-gas play within the Barnett Shale geological formation – Finn’s book is particularly valuable as an examination of an earlier Texas in the throes of boom-town mania.
“Howard remains to most an Oedipal figure who created [Conan] as a wish-fulfillment fantasy,” as Publisher’s Weekly has appraised Blood and Thunder. “Finn quietly and expertly demolishes these and other misconceptions [and] discusses Howard in the context of a populist writer whose dyspeptic view of civilization was forged in the corrupt Texas oil-boom towns in which he grew up.”
Every fictional character must have some basis in real-life observation or experience. Finn’s persuasive argument, interpreted from Howard’s published and private writings, holds that Conan, with his air of defiance, his appetites for mayhem and his “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirths” (in Howard’s terminology) owes much to the oilfield social dynamics of the early 20th century – the upshot of abrupt industrialization.
From Finn’s book: “Even a cursory examination of Robert E. Howard’s body of work reveals several recurring themes. The rise and fall of civilizations…, and a singular, moral man against a horde of immoral adversaries can be found in the stories of Conan the Cimmerian, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, King Kull, and even in lesser characters … It’s a philosophy cobbled together from a precocious and voluminous amount of reading and from shrewd first-hand observation of the tension between the old Texans of the frontier and the new Texans with oil, and sometimes blood, on their hands.”
A distinction bears mentioning between the earliest boom days and the renewed activity centered upon the Barnett Shale geological formation: The temptations of sudden prosperity remain constant, but the civilizing influences of law and order and environmental responsibility were less readily enforced in those times.
Finn quotes Howard at length, such as these words from 1928: “[T]he town was deluged with oil workers and magnates … roughnecks who swaggered and jostled their way through life … loud-mouthed, steely-eyed promoters …”
Explains Finn: “Howard had good reason to hate the oil boom. His father … had chased prosperity … Every year or two, the Howards would … start over again.”
Howard wrote in 1930 to H.P. Lovecraft, ’way off in Rhode Island: “I’ve seen towns leap into being overnight and become deserted almost as quick. I’ve seen old farmers … become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers … and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom…”
His parents’ eventual settlement in Cross Plains gave Howard the anchorage to begin maturing as a writer – one of the first, as Conan series artist-turned-writer Timothy Truman points out, to develop tales of virile heroism and fantastic adventure from a laboring-class narrative setting.
The nature of Howard’s profession, pounding a typewriter in solitude, made him something of an outcast in a town where the menfolk were expected to toil conventionally for their bread. Howard’s suicide, in 1936, left a bewildering void. Finn’s thoughtful and provocative biography helps to explain the complex influences that drove Howard to such immense surges of creativity and destruction.
“[H]e built a career … as a professional writer in an intellectual vacuum, surrounded by a town’s indifference…,” writes Finn. “… Despite Robert’s wish to avoid the oil boom, it was a part of his identity … [I]n the midst of Texas’ greatest time of change, his thoughts and opinions became the building blocks for one of the most significant bodies of work in contemporary literature.
“The story of Robert E. Howard is the story of 20th-century Texas.”
On the Web: www.monkeybrainbooks.com
Co-author of The Prowler and the forthcoming horrific graphic novel Fishhead, Michael H. Price claims a movies-and-comics pedigree via blood-kin ties with Vincent Price (1911-93) and Mad magazine’s Roger Price (1918–90). MHP’s movie commentaries can be found at The Fort Worth Business Press and at SciFi And Horror.com.