It has been almost
two decades since L. Sprague de Camp collaborated with his wife
Catherine, and Jane Whittington Griffin to write the Robert E.
Howard biography Dark Valley
Destiny. De Camp
has been vilified, ideologically pilloried, and even had his
gravesite threatened in the last decade of Howard fandom.
This biographical look at REH has been one main target of
reaction. After a
period of almost twenty years it is time for it to be reexamined.
Camps make plain their intentions for this book at the end of the
first chapter. To investigate the
relationship between Robert Howard’s life and his art is the
purpose of this book. (p. 17)
The authors way of examining that relationship relies
on a lot of (mostly amateur) psychoanalyzing that is
controversial, to say the least.
The best way to examine the book is on a chapter by chapter
clear that L. Sprague de Camp (hereafter referred to as LSdC) is
the primary author of the book.
Catherine Crook de Camp signs the introduction and her
voice is rarely heard after that.
Jane Whittington Griffin died during the book’s
compilation. The de
Camp’s make it clear her main purpose was to help them in their
introductions to Texans that knew the Howard family (Ms. Griffin
grew up in Texas) and to provide some speculation on REH’s
boyhood. (Ms. Griffin
taught child development courses at the University of
relies on a diverse assortment of interviews, letters, and
reference work to reach his conclusions.
introduction and first chapter set the stage for what follows.
The second chapter tells us of REH’s family background.
A family tree is given along with some interesting details
about REH’s forebears. An
area in Texas known as Dark Valley was REH’s childhood home.
LSdC paints a struggling picture for the Howards.
Hester, REH’s mother was sickly.
Isaac, REH’s father was a wandering unsatisfied man.
LSdC paraphrases from a letter that REH wrote to H. P.
Lovecraft about his childhood.
It describes Dark Valley as a shadowy mysterious place.
LSdC says, “[…] Robert Howard […] was writing about himself.
His description of the valley was based on feelings that
had their roots in the earliest years of his life.” (p. 35)
background information on REH’s father follows in chapter 3.
LSdC suggests that Dr. Howard was the physical inspiration
for Conan. “To
a small child, he would have been an awesome figure, a large,
aggressive man with an authoritative air and piercing blue eyes
beneath a full head of coal-black hair.” (p. 36)
LSdC later suggests that Dark Valley became Cimmeria.
chapter begins the focus on REH.
The psychoanalysis begins in earnest and it is not very
profound. There is
talk of childhood masturbation that leads nowhere.
LSdC paraphrases rather than quotes directly from letters
and interviews. The
footnoted quotations aren’t very elucidating.
They seem rather haphazard and do little to justify some of
his ruminations. LSdC
suggests, by quoting a passage from Texas author, Larry McMurtry,
that REH might have been bullied with scatological attacks.
It is a distasteful image with does not further the
biography in any way. This
is a particularly weak chapter.
chapter is better. The footnoted quotations are applicable to the topic and give
insight. It is a
genuine pleasure to read about REH’s childhood romps with his
dog Patches. We learn
of REH’s boyhood friends, his love of boxing, and his developing
imagination. But de
Camp also quotes from a boyhood acquaintance that the nine year
old Robert dressed as “what
a boy would term a sissy.” (p. 83)
It arguably serves de Camp’s narrative point that
Mrs. Howard doted on her son to the point of inhibiting REH’s
chapter goes on in interesting fashion telling us of some of
REH’s boyhood influences. Dr.
Howard’s wide variety of interests in hypnotism, occultism, and
reincarnation were obvious influences on the young boy.
We learn of REH’s grandmother and a black woman, Mary
Bohannon, who told REH ghost stories.
family eventually settles in Cross Plains.
De Camp goes on a lengthy excursion into Texas history.
It is fine and arguably needed but it slows down the story
we’re interested in.
“Barbarian in a Boomtown” brings us to a part of REH’s life
where more facts are known. LSdC
does an adequate job of describing Cross Plains and the house
where the Howard family settled.
Diagrams of the house as it was in REH’s time would have
been appreciated. The
house, of course, still stands and is visited by admiring fans.
De Camp misses an opportunity to provide fans with a
helpful tool. A map
of the town with REH-related landmarks would have been nice also.
We learn more of REH’s teen-age years.
His intellectual development proceeded in the direction of
history and literature. We
also learn that Howard, who wrote very realistically of violence,
had a real life antipathy for bloodshed.
The young REH witnessed an act of violence while in New
Orleans that sometimes evoked nightmares.
“He was present
during a street fight in which one man killed another with a
knife, nearly cutting off the victim’s head.” (p. 146)
It was also
in New Orleans, according to de Camp, where REH also discovered a
history book about the Picts. Howard’s fascination for this nearly forgotten people
lasted his entire literary career.
LSdC goes on to give some historical information about
Aryanist doctrine. This
overview is very helpful in explaining the ideas that held sway in
REH’s time. It
helps clarify REH’s own fiction and helps the modern reader
understand REH’s focus and understanding of race during his
lifetime. It is
essential information for putting REH’s more racist sounding
ideas in a proper historical context.
more about REH’s love of nature and animals.
We learn that REH talks about hunting in his letters but
that he never killed anything (including snakes.)
LSdC uses REH’s sensitivity and kindness against him
though. LSdC quotes
from a psychiatrist to suggest that REH’s evolved attitude
toward animals suggests a misanthropic attitude toward people.
This is jejune speculation of the wildest kind.
provide some documentation to support his view that REH had a
misanthropic attitude toward mankind though.
He quotes conversations and letters where REH talks about
enemies and lasting hates. LSdC
tells of the creation of Solomon Kane, a figure much like REH, a
man of passionate beliefs and a strong sense of justice.
“[…] Tevis Clyde
Smith shrewdly observed that Robert ‘was Solomon Kane, off
paper, even more than he was Conan.’” (p. 163)
chapter, “Apprentice Pulpster” uses REH’s autobiographical
novel, “Post Oaks and Sand Roughs” for much of its reference.
This chapter is more factual and less prone to
psychoanalyzing than previous chapters.
There is some criticism of Howard’s earlier prose but
also compliments. “[The
Hyena] keeps the action moving in the manner for which Howard is
justly praised.” (p. 188) One particular piece of psychoanalyzing appears though.
“For all his
astuteness at self-appraisal, Robert Howard never divined the fuel
that fed the fires of his destructive fury.
We venture to suggest that the unending domination of a
strong-willed mother, whose demands were reinforced by her long
years of invalidism, evoked in her son an urgent desire to rebel,
but that this desire was forever thwarted by his pity for her
this frustrating situation was the forceful presence of an
imposing father, whose freely-expressed pronouncements had the
force of law both in the community and in the home, and whose
commands were to be respected and obeyed without question.
Unable to burst the iron bonds that wore the guise of
tender restraints, Robert suppressed his anger and displaced it
onto all others who directed or thwarted him.” (p. 209)
opinions are his to make. One
can agree or disagree. By
cataloging REH’s attitude towards his teachers, fellow
townspeople, boomtown oilmen, and especially his employers LSdC
does make a case for a person of emotional immaturity, unrealistic
attitudes, and strong anti-social feelings.
chapter “Singer in the Shadows” deals with REH as maturing
introduces some trivia, REH had weight control problems due to
overeating, and he collected various weapons.
Interesting tidbits for fans.
LSdC compliments “Red Shadows” the first Solomon Kane
we see the beginnings of the distinctive prose style that makes
much of Howard’s later work hum with vitality.” (p. 217)
Later LSdC offers some criticism of “Spanish Gold on
Devil Horse.” “Howard,
moreover, falls back on the idiot plot – subjecting his
characters to attacks of stupidity to keep the plot moving.” (p.
219) LSdC continues to quote excerpts from letters that stress
REH’s alienation from his fellow man.
In what is probably a surprise to most, LSdC compliments
REH’s humorous boxing stories.
“They show that Howard had a lively sense of humor […].
[And are] “delightful
tales.” (p. 231) LSdC
refers to the Dennis Dorgan stories, “The
stories are entertaining parodies of real life.” (p. 232)
on to recount the story of REH leaving town to avoid the impending
death of his dog, Patches. LSdC
uses this story to illustrate REH’s “sloughing off of reality”
calls this the hallmark of a poet though. LSdC goes on to discuss REH’s poetry.
By the end of the chapter LSdC somewhat contradicts
himself. “Some of Robert
Howard’s friends, including Lovecraft, have said that Howard was
primarily a poet. We
disagree. We consider him a great storyteller first and foremost, and
one who made his prose soar at times because he brought poetry to
it.” (p. 244)
ways “Dark Valley Destiny” is choppy and inconsistent. Several times LSdC will put forth an idea, as in the above
example, i.e. first saying that Howard had the essence of a poet,
but then later contradicting himself saying that REH was a
storyteller first and foremost. This is only a minor (and in this instance, mostly
explainable) example. Other
times the contradictions are more severe, i.e. indicating in one
chapter that Howard was a loner and in the next chapter telling us
of REH’s numerous Cross Plains friends. A possible reason for this is that different parts of the
book were written over a stretch of time. The copyright dates for the book indicate this to be the
case. LSdC should
have edited this work more closely. It appears that he didn’t always revise his earlier
comments to jibe with newer facts that he learned. Nevertheless a discerning reader can get a decent picture
and overview of REH’s life.
chapter “Serpents, Swords, and Supermen” tells us more of
REH’s life and his correspondence with fellow writers. An interesting paragraph tells us that “friends
still mention Bob with love and respect. […] It infuriates them
to hear him described as ‘crazy,’” […]. (p. 250)
Later LSdC says that the Turlogh O’Brien character
represents a major theme of REH’s work. “[…] the man
obsessed by hatred. Into
such characters Howard could pour his own feelings toward his
‘enemies.’” (p. 258)
Transcendent Barbarian” chapter deals with Conan. This is an interesting chapter.
LSdC is a Conan fan but he feels motivated to downplay the
unsold Conan stories and suggests that his posthumous
collaborations improved them. For a story like “The God in the Bowl” that is arguably
true but when de Camp calls “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” a
plotless little sketch he is asking for derision. The chapter ends with what may well be REH’s finest
praise though. “[…]
all these criticisms fade like morning mist before Howard’s
headlong rush of action, his rainbow-tinted prose, the intensity
with which he wrote his own feelings into his stories, and, above
all, his Hyborian world – that splendid creation – which ranks
with Burroughs' Barsoom and Tolkien's Middle Earth as a major
fictional achievement.” (p. 295)
chapters “Faithful in His Fashion” and “Love and the
Loner” are primarily about REH’s relationship with Novalyne
Price. LSdC gives an
excellent overview to their relationship. This information has been supplanted by the publication of
Novalyne Price’s memoir “One Who Walked Alone” and the movie
“The Whole Wide World.” But
LSdC’s overview, while shorter, covers the pertinent information
and covers material not found in Novalyne’s book or the feature
chapter “Dark Valley Destiny” covers the time after REH’s
death to the (then) present. The book ends with LSdC parting comments on REH’s psyche.
that Robert Howard put into his stories with such burning
intensity was, despite his great talents and virtues, a fatally
flawed personality. He
suffered from pathological dependence on his mother, from
delusions of persecution, from a fascination with suicide.” (p.
366) Not even the
most blinder attired REH fan could dispute that last item. REH’s fascination with suicide was a fatal flaw. LSdC’s
final comment on REH’s personality says “Thus
the very traits that in the end destroyed him bestowed on Robert
Howard’s fiction its qualities of greatness.” (p. 367)
Valley Destiny” remains the premiere Howard biography. Perhaps Rusty Burke or some other fan will write a new
biography that corrects this biography’s errors, such as they
may be. Robert E.
Howard’s fiction is not as popular as it was during the late
70’s and early 80’s. The
Conan stories have just recently returned to print. The chances for a new biography seem remote, as such a
thing would have to be purely a labor of love, and those that love
REH the most are 9 – 5 working stiffs who have little time for
such an endeavor.
reprint collection of Conan stories (published in Great Britain)
is dedicated to L. Sprague de Camp. While plenty of REH fans writhe and moan about this it is
good to see that others recognize the reality of history and give
LSdC his due. For
whatever reasons, he promoted Conan AND Bob Howard. It is hoped that the publishers at Wandering Star will also
dedicate one of their Conan collections to Mr. de Camp. It would do a lot to apologize for fan behavior that was
As a source
for Howard’s life this biography is too full of unflattering
conclusions to please the Howard “purist.” But as a critical source for fantasy and literary scholars
who are trying to appraise REH’s art, “Dark Valley Destiny”
is a praise-filled work that extols the craft and genius of Robert