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Southwestern Discomfit: An Analysis of Gary Romeo’s Controversial Article on Robert E. Howard and Racism

Posted by Damon Sasser on 20th December 2011

by Mark Finn

Author’s Note: I am indebted to fellow scholars Jess Nevins, Rob Roehm, and Barbara Barrett for their comments and also in the sharing of their research with me in the rewriting of this paper. MF


REHupa #173 was a watershed mailing, way back in February 2002, for a number of reasons. Significantly, it was the mailing that featured Gary Romeo’s article, “Southern Discomfort.” As I read the article, I immediately noticed that Gary, in constructing his argument, was so interested in trawling the bottom that he willfully overlooked so much better stuff closer to the surface. It made me angry, and it made me instantly defensive. What I wanted to do was first ask Gary: what was your point in writing the article? Who is the target audience for it? And then I wanted to take it apart, piece by piece in my next mailing.

But I didn’t. I was new, and I didn’t want to rock the boat, or make any enemies right away. So I held my tongue. Besides, I wondered, I had no idea what my fellow REHupans thought about any of this. Maybe they agreed with Gary.

As it turned out, they did not. In the subsequent mailings, several of the older and more experienced REHupa members took Gary to task, and took a number of calculated swings at his essay, his methodology, and even his intent. I felt a lot better about my involvement in REHupa, but I regretted never having a chance to tee off on the topic.

When the REHupa website started up, it was determined that more recent, more approachable articles could also be listed on the site, if any member so wanted. Gary was one of the few people who stepped up to the plate and actually handed out articles to post. Along with his other Pro-de Camp essays was “Southern Discomfort.” I watched it go up, go live, and bit my tongue. After all, I thought, who was I to say that Gary could list all the rest of his articles, except that one? That’s when I got the idea of first doing a counterpoint article, just to balance out Gary’s essay, especially now that it was devoid of its context within the REHupa mailings and commentary structure. But at the time, I was working on what would become Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, and so, I thought, I had bigger fish to fry.

Now it’s 2011. I’ve been a member in REHupa for nearly ten years now. And it’s high time I took a whacking stick to “Southern Discomfort” publicly. It has needed it for a long time, particularly since it’s one of the most popular things accessed on the REHupa website. The number of links to it from external blogs, websites, and citations used to indicate that yes, Robert E. Howard was indeed a racist, because look, right here, this guy says so on the experts’ website, are too numerous to count. That’s the problem with Internet research: it’s grab and go, and no effort is made to fact-check it.

Well, you may consider this the official fact-check. This article assumes that someone has already read “Southern Discomfort” and want to know more about whether or not Robert E. Howard was a racist or not. If you would like the background to “Southern Discomfort,” you can go here [1] and read all about it. You can also read the initial reactions to Gary’s piece here.[2]

 Deconstructing “Southern Discomfort”

The single biggest problem with Gary’s article is that it’s unfocused and attempts to cover so much ground that his argument is spread rather thin. He uses letter quotes, biographical sources (both recounted private conversations and reminiscences), and quotes from Howard’s fiction to say that Howard was a racist, and then goes into a lengthy comparison of one of Howard’s horror stories—the most racially charged story Howard ever wrote—as if this was the sort of thing that Howard wrote all of the time. Moreover, he compares Howard’s short story, which first appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales (and was written with that audience in mind), with the fourth novel of a man known for his sympathetic views towards African-Americans in the forties and fifties.

It’s a set-up, from start to finish. Gary made no attempt to level the playing field by comparing Howard to other pulp authors. In his haste to make his argument that Howard was a racist, he ignored or downplayed all of the instances where Howard cast ethnic characters in a favorable or sympathetic light. The amount of material that Gary never talked about in his essay is astonishing. As a result, his argument is too narrowly framed to be of any real use to anyone, by virtue of his myriad of omissions.

Comparing Erskine Caldwell to Robert E. Howard as any kind of racial barometer is a ridiculously unfair juxtaposition. Gary says the comparison is apt, but he’s just wrong. Yes, they were both writers, and lived in the south (or southwest), but there the similarities end. Wayne Mixon, of Augusta State University, said about Caldwell’s writing, “Caldwell’s focus on the issues of class and race was more intense than that of any other white southern writer of his generation.” Those things were only of tangential and historical interest to Howard, thematically speaking. Caldwell made those the central focus in his work (and was pilloried by his community for decades because of it). Howard focused more on the elemental conflict between two warring factions, and most frequently members of different ethnic groups or “races.” Caldwell wrote novels and stories for high end magazines. Howard wrote mostly short stories for the pulps, and in a variety of genres. Excepting Howard’s own singular idea of “realism” in his fiction, he is known as the Father of Sword and Sorcery as we currently define it. There’s no real common ground between the two authors. By setting up criteria that inherently favors Caldwell, and not countering the argument with any positive race portrayals by Howard, Gary’s ringer automatically wins.

Gary begins his essay with a simplified explanation of the Hyborian Age and Conan’s world. This is followed by a couple of examples of racially-charged language, cited from an L. Sprague de Camp article on how he personally chose to edit the Conan stories. Finally, Gary begrudgingly states that the stereotyping language utilized in the Conan stories could be dismissed as standard conventions of the pulps and pulp writers in general. I would add that such stereotyping was, in fact, in wide practice throughout all of popular culture at this time—radio, the movies, magazines, newspapers, the theater…and it was universal, particularly for comedians and humor writers. When you consider that roughly one third of Howard’s professional work could be categorized as humorous, that fact is crucial. Gary then states: “But Howard has grown popular, and with increased popularity, comes increased scrutiny.” On this point, I do agree with Gary completely, and we have certainly seen increased scrutiny in Howard’s work over this past decade.

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Posted in Howard's Writing, Influences, L. Sprague de Camp, Popular Culture, Pulps, Weird Tales |

Strap Buckner: Breckinridge Elkins Prototype?

Posted by Jeff Shanks on 28th November 2011

Strap Buckner

In my recent Two-Gun Raconteur article on rough-and-tumble fighting I mentioned that one of the figures from Western folklore that might have been a model for Breckinridge Elkins was the Texas pioneer Strap Buckner (Shanks 51). As Buckner is not as well known today as other folk heroes like Paul Bunyon, John Henry, or Pecos Bill it is worth taking a closer look this legendary figure.

Aylett “Strap” Buckner was born around 1794 and was one of the Old Three Hundred, the first colonists that founded Austin in 1824. Much of the little we know about the historical Buckner comes from census records and his letters to Stephen Austin. He seems to have had an on-again off-again relationship with Austin, though ultimately the two became good friends. Buckner was an Indian fighter, but also helped negotiate treaties with the Waco and Kawatoni tribes. He was killed fighting the Mexican army at the Battle of Velasco in 1832 (“BUCKNER”).

Accounts say he was a giant of a man with fiery red hair and matching beard. His great size and strength became the stuff of legend among the early colonists in Texas and a body of folklore eventually began to develop around him. The earliest known written version of the folkloric Strap Buckner appears in the 1877 travelogue of Colonel Nathaniel Alston Taylor. Taylor arrived in Texas shortly before the Civil War and traveled all over the state by horseback, recording his observations on the lives and social conditions of the locals. He heard the story of Strap Buckner recounted by a young man near Buckner’s Creek in Fayette County (Dobie 119).

According to the account of Buckner recorded by Taylor, the big man had the odd habit of good-naturally knocking people down by slapping them on the back. It was said that he had knocked down everyone in Austin’s colony at least three times, including Stephen Austin himself. Although Buckner meant no real harm, his fellow colonists tired of his behavior and Buckner was forced to move away to the La Grange area. There he began to knock down all the members of the local Indian tribe, including the chief. This chief, however, instead of being angry, was impressed by Buckner’s strength and gave him a swift, bob-tailed gray mare as a gift, as well as bestowing upon him the name Red Son of Blue Thunder (Taylor 121-122). Other versions claim that the chief even offered Strap the hand of his daughter, Princess Tulipita, in marriage (“BUCKNER”).

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Posted in History, Influences, Popular Culture, Sources |

Robert E. Howard and The Outline of History by H. G. Wells

Posted by Jeff Shanks on 10th October 2011

A few months ago on the REHupa email list I brought up a question about The Outline of History by H.G. Wells and its presence in Howard’s library. For those who aren’t familiar with it, The Outline of History was a massive work by Wells that was essentially a macro-history of the world, from the formation of the earth to modern times. It was first published in a series of twenty-four soft-cover booklets in 1919, then in book form as a two-volume set in 1920. The Outline of History went through several significant revisions throughout Wells’s lifetime—particularly within the first few years of its publication—so for anyone attempting to look at the influence of this work on Howard’s fiction, it becomes very important to determine exactly which edition Howard had in his library.

Steve Eng’s list of Howard’s library in The Dark Barbarian records a four-volume set of The Outline of History with four individual accession numbers for the Howard Payne University library. As the set was no longer in the HPU holdings, no publication information was given to indicate which edition Howard owned other than to note that the four-volume version exists in numerous printings. When compiling the online version of the “Robert E. Howard Bookshelf,” Rusty Burke followed his standard practice of listing the earliest American edition for books no longer in the HPU holdings. For The Outline of History this is the 1920 two-volume 2nd edition published by Macmillan (the 1st edition being the 1919 serialized version). A 3rd revised edition was also published by Macmillan in 1921 in both single volume and two-volume versions.

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Posted in Biography, History, Howard's Writing, Influences |

Dreams in the Fire

Posted by indy on 16th May 2011

One of the (many) cool things about Howard Days is that there are usually several Howard-related surprises that HD attendees get the first look at. This year is no different with nifty stuff showing up that if I told you about it it wouldn’t be a surprise now, would it? But I will tease you by saying if one of the surprises happens, it will blow your mind! Ask me when you see me in Cross Plains…

OK, back on topic. One item that won’t be a surprise at Howard Days but is nonetheless really very nifty is DREAMS IN THE FIRE, an anthology of writings from past and present members of REHupa, the Robert E. Howard United Press Association.

This is a project put together by Mark Finn and Chris Gruber, two of the manliest of men in or out of Howard Fandom, with a magnificent cover by Jim & Ruth Keegan. Behind the cover you will find :

  • Introduction by Rusty Burke
  • “A Gathering of Ravens” by Charles Gramlich
  • “The Rhymester of Ulm” by James Reasoner
  • “The Word” by Rob Roehm
  • “This Too Will Go Its Way” by Barbara Barrett
  • “CSI: Kimmeria” by Robert Weinberg
  • “Bloody Isle of the Kiyah-rahi” by Christopher Fulbright
  • “Son of Song” by Frank Coffman
  • “Avatar” by Jimmy Cheung
  • “Belit’s Refrain” by Barbara Barrett
  • “Now With Serpents He Wars” by Patrick R. Berger
  • “Best to Let it Lie” by Danny Street
  • “Two Dragons Blazing: A Tale of the Barbarian Kabar of El Hazzar” by Angeline Hawkes
  • “The Nights’ Last Battle” by Amy Kerr
  • “Sailor Tom Sharkey and the Phantom of the Gentlemen Farmer’s Commune” by Mark Finn
  • “I Am a Martian Galley Slave!” by David A. Hardy
  • “A Spirit on the Wind” by Frank Coffman
  • “Dead River Revenge” by Chris Gruber
  • “The Moon” by Barbara Barrett
  • “No Other Gods” by Gary Romeo
  • “A Meeting in the Bush” by Morgan Holmes
  • “Blades of Hell” by Don Herron
  • Afterword by Mark Finn

Y’know what? I don’t need to say anything else. This tome is available via Lulu:
and will debut at Howard Days on June 10th.

Indy sez: check it out!

Mark Adds:
In addition to helping Project Pride maintain the Robert E. Howard House, Dreams in the Fire makes a great autograph book for those of you wanting unique pieces of Howardian Memorabilia. Most of the people in the book are regular or semi-regular attendees to Howard Days and will be in Cross Plains this year to sign and date your copy. You can catch a lot of REHupans with this book!

Posted in Cross Plains, Howard's Writing, Influences, REH Days |

A New REH Manifesto

Posted by indy on 18th October 2010

Mark Finn, familiar to Howard fans all over the world for his marvelous REH biography, Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, has a number of words for all the recent internet misinformation regarding Ol’ Two-Gun. If you would like to read the entire Manifesto, just click on the CRITICISM tab at the top of this page. What follows here is Mark’s opening salvo.

A New Robert E. Howard Manifesto

I am a fan of Robert E. Howard, the Texas author who created a multitude of unique characters, wrote original and inventive fiction, defined the genre of epic fantasy as we understand it, and inspired me to become a professional writer. There are tens of thousands of other fans just like myself. As fans of Robert E. Howard and his works, we are interested in reading more about our favorite author. We are interested in sharing and exchanging new ideas about his life and work, and we actively seek out these new ideas online, in print, and elsewhere.

What we do not want to see are semi-uninformed retreads of the same discussions that were in vogue circa 1984. The field of Howard Studies is alive and well, with new discoveries and voices appearing all the time.  Interest in the author is high and remains so. If you have a thought or an opinion, even a controversial or untested one, and want to share it with the world at large, we encourage that you do so.

We expect responsibility and accountability on your part. We are not interested in your grand pronouncement on a subject which has yet to be settled by people who have spent decades studying the issue at hand. We expect you to do your homework. There are a number of websites and literally stacks of new books that likely cover or answer most of your questions regarding Robert E. Howard. To not utilize those sources when doing your research smacks of willful ignorance and will not be tolerated by the fans of Robert E. Howard.

If you want to write a review about how much you didn’t like Kull: Exile of Atlantis, have at it. Take it apart for any and all textual reasons you choose to invoke. We may not agree because Howard’s work isn’t for everyone, and we understand that. But the minute you start bringing Robert E. Howard’s life story into your Kull review, it will garner a much more careful reading, and if you don’t have your facts straight, or your opinions backed up by same, then we will call you on it.

The online Robert E. Howard fanbase calls itself the “Shield Wall.” Some writers who have been on the business end of the Shield Wall’s attacks have accused us of being bullies and overly-obsessed for the protective stance we take. While it is not our intention to bully anyone, and while we may get a little carried away on occasion, let me be very clear here as to why this is so: Robert E. Howard has not had a voice for 75 years now. For four decades after his death, he had very few advocates who would defend him against the libel and slander of those who stood to profit from his work. He has been misunderstood and misrepresented for years. The Shield Wall’s goal has been to stop in its entirety the kind of character assassination employed by L. Sprague de Camp and others who would adopt his methodology.

Consider this a challenge to survey the amount of work that has been done in Howard Studies in the last ten years alone and then try to come up with your own take on a topic or angle of discussion that has not been beaten to death. Do not make the mistake that so many others have made; just because Robert E. Howard isn’t considered a “classic” author by the literary establishment that you can beat his literary reputation (or his personal life) like a rented mule and you will not get kicked for your efforts.

We expect you to accord Robert E. Howard the same respect as any other 20th century American author with continued and perennial popularity. No more back handed compliments. No more snide insinuations. No more rampant and irresponsible speculation with no basis of fact or evidence to bolster it. And for God’s Sake, no more “oedipal complex” crap, either. Those theories are thirty years out of date, and we are sick and tired of seeing it. Give us something new, or keep your parochial and backwards thinking to yourself.

Mark Finn

Author of Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard

And Commander of the Texas Shield Wall

Posted in Biography, Howard's Writing, Influences, L. Sprague de Camp, news |

Friending Imaro

Posted by Damon Sasser on 31st August 2010

It looks like everyone’s favorite Ilyassai warrior has found his way onto Facebook.  Charles Saunders’ epic hero now has his own fan club page where you can keep up with his latest adventures and those of his creator.

Here is a recent update from Charles from the Facebook page on all the great fantasy fiction he is currently working on:

Next up in my publishing pipeline is Dossouye II, the sequel to the Dossouye volume that came out in 2008. That book was a compilation of previously published stories about the Black Amazon. Dossouye II is a brand new novel.

After Dossouye II comes Imaro V. This volume can be considered a book-length epilogue to Imaro IV

Next in line is The Warrior’s Way, a collection of the Imaro short stories that were not incorporated into the novels. Seven of the ten stories in this book were previously published in the 1970s and 1980s; three are brand-new, written during the time period of 2007-2008.

Also, I recently completed another Imaro story for the Sword and Soul anthology I’m putting together with Milton Davis.

Farther down the pipeline is Nyumbani Tales, a collection of short stories that do not have either Imaro or Dossouye as lead characters. However, one story features Imaro’s mother, Katisa, and two are about Imaro’s sidekick, Pomphis.

So be assured there will be more Saunders fiction coming out over the next couple of years.

Posted in Influences, Popular Culture |

Road Trip! – The Cross Plains Blood Trail

Posted by Damon Sasser on 14th April 2010

For those of you who have some spare time this June while attending Howard Days, you might want to do a bit of wandering around the area surrounding Cross Plains and visit the sites of some historical and notorious events smack dab in the middle of Howard’s old stomping grounds

After reading about some of the real life episodes, one can see Howard lived in a part of Texas that saw more than its share of violence and sorrow back in days of the wild frontier when sudden death was cloaked in the guise of the Red Indian.  The blood that flowed through Howard’s veins was much the same as the hale and hearty settlers, soldiers and lawmen that preceded him.  While he did not have to deal with the same day to day death struggles the frontiersmen did, he was certainly made of the same mettle.

No doubt, late at night while working at his typewriter, he could hear the faint sounds of horse hooves pounding across  the plains, the cry of the Indian braves and the thunderous reports of pistols and rifles as the white man pushed the frontier further west. Howard did not have to venture far to find material to write about – the stories were all around him.

Posted in Cross Plains, History, Howard's Writing, Influences, REH Days |

A. Conan Doyle, HPL, and REH

Posted by morgan on 10th February 2010

9780812504248 The success of the recent Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey, Jr. got me thinking about Arthur Conan Doyle.  Downey appears to give Sherlock Holmes a London accent whereas Doyle had referred to Holmes’ northern origin. Holmes is a name that originated in Lancashire in England.  There are some Scottish Holmes but they are no doubt descendants of reprobates, miscreants, and recidivists who fled across the border evading justice.  The name has its origin from before the Norman Conquest in its Old English version of Holegn which means the holly plant or bush. So Sherlock Holmes should be speaking like a Mancunian.

Both Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were fans of both Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Lovecraft was such a fan he formed The Providence Detective Agency with friends for play when he was thirteen.  Robert E. Howard mentioned Doyle as one of his favorite writers in a letter to Lovecraft.  Howard seems to have been bit with the Sherlock Holmes bug in 1923 telling Tevis Clyde Smith to watch for any cheap Doyle books he can get. Howard’s library included The Sign of Four, The Valley of Fear, The Hound of the Baskervilles, His Last Bow, and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Howard also had The Maracot Deep, The Lost World, and The White Company. Howard also had two volumes of Conan Doyle’s Best Books which included A Study in Scarlet and various non-series stories.


H. P. Lovecraft’s library included The Lost World, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley, Tales of Long Ago, and Tales of Twlight and the Unseen. Interesting that both HPL and REH had The Lost World in their possession. It is a classic fantastic adventure novel. Doyle wrote enough fantastic stories to fill out collections of both science fiction and supernatural fiction.

If you want to work on your Robert E. Howard bookshelf, a good place to start is getting The Lost World.

Doyle’s influence extends further. August Derleth wrote direct pastiches of Sherlock Holmes with his character Solar Pons. Donald Wandrei had his own detective series featuring I. V. Frost in Clues Detective Stories. Frost has some similarities to Holmes but uses more gadgets and is much more violent when need be. I wouldn’t be surprised if Frank Belknap Long ever wrote any Doyle influenced detective fiction.

Posted in Influences |

Corgi Star Rover Cover

Posted by morgan on 26th October 2009

Bill “Indiana” Cavalier came through with a scan for the Corgi paperback edition of Jack London’s The Star Rover. Here it is:

Star RoverNothing to write home about. I would have liked to see a Frank Frazetta or Jeff Jones cover.

Posted in Influences |

Building a “Robert E. Howard Library”- Jack London

Posted by morgan on 24th October 2009

Some of those who are Robert E. Howard fans are interested in what he read and what influenced him.  I mentally subdivide the category into two groups. One includes the Howard’s Weird Tales and the H. P. Lovecraft circle. The other group are those that Howard sought out and enjoyed generally in his younger days. Many are classic adventures writers from what is now becoming called the “Era of the Storytellers.” Generally these are classic adventure writers who straddle the 19th-20th Century line. I have covered a few such as Harold Lamb and Talbot Mundy in the past month.

If one wants to read what influenced Howard, the first writer on the list should be Jack London. Remembered today as a boy’s writer of dog stories, London was so much more. He wrote in that time where the division between “slick” and “pulp” magazine was not so set in stone. London was at the forefront of changing the language of writing. His style was not flowery or ornamented. He used simple words but used them well. The prose flowed much faster and that influence is still felt today. Robert E. Howard had two collections of London short stories, six novels, and a collection of essays.  Fantasy Magazine in 1935 mentioned that “Jack London is this Texan’s favorite writer.”

If there is one Jack London book a Robert E. Howard fan should seek out, it is The Star Rover. I first heard of this book in Fritz Leiber’s excellent introduction to the Berkley paperback edition of Marchers of Valhalla. It was six years later that I finally found a hardback copy at John T. Zubal Books in Cleveland, Ohio. A tale of a convict tortured by using the straight jacket on him, he remembers past lives. The prose is familiar:

“And on that great drift, southward and eastward under the burning sun that perished all descendents of the houses of Asgard and Vanaheim that took part in it, I have been a king in Ceylon, a builder of Aryan monuments under Aryan kings in old Java and old Sumatra. And I have died a thousand deaths on the great South Sea Drift ere ever the rebirth of men to plant monuments, that only Aryans plant, on volcano tropic islands that I, Darrell Standing, cannot name, being too well versed in that far sea geography.”

The Star Rover is available today in a few different editions. For some reason, there was never a mass market paperback edition during the sword and sorcery booms. There was a Corgi paperback in the U.K. I am still trying to find a scan of the cover for that one. There were two different mass market paperback editions for Before Adam. That was London’s first racial memory novel predating The Star Rover. We don’t know if Howard read that but I would bet that he did.

Ace- Before AdamI have not seen the Bantam edition of Before Adam in a long time though it used to be common in bookstores. The Ace edition has a way better cover.

Another novel in Howard’s Library is The Iron Heel which is set slightly in the future for that time (1908) and is about a shooting class war in the United States. There are some trade paperback editions of that novel.

As to the short stories, the fantastics are generally going to interest the Howard fan. The Citadel Twilight The Science Fiction Stories of Jack London is technically out of print but copies are cheap and plentiful at Amazon.

An oddity that you may run across in a used bookstore is Thirteen Tales of Terror. This is a Popular Library paperback from 1978. I have only ever seen this once (and I snatched it up) but again does not appear to be rare with online sellers. It is a cool little collection.

Thirteen Tales of TerrorLeonaur Books in the U.K. has reissued Before Adam, The Star Rover, and The Iron Heel in both hardback and trade paperback editions. Plus–each book includes several shorter fantastic stories by London. So, if you get all three books, you will have just about all of London’s fantastic output. You can order these at Amazon or directly from

Posted in Influences |