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Revisiting Dark Valley Destiny

by Gary Romeo


Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard

L. Sprague de Camp, Catherine Crook de Camp, and Jane Whittington Griffin

Bluejay Books, New York, December 1983

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.

The de 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 basis.

It seems 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 Pennsylvania.)  LSdC relies on a diverse assortment of interviews, letters, and reference work to reach his conclusions.

The 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)

More 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.

The next 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.

The next 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 independence.  The 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.

The Howard 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.

 The chapter “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.

We learn 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.

LSdC does 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)

The next 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 suffering.  Compounding 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) 

LSdC’s 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.

The next chapter “Singer in the Shadows” deals with REH as maturing writer.  LSdC 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 story.  “Here 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)

LSdC goes 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”    LSdC 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)

In several 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.

The next 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)

“The 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)  

The next 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 film.

The final 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.  “The ‘self’ 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)

“Dark 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. 

The latest 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 often despicable.

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 Ervin Howard. 

Gary Romeo would appreciate feedback on his articles.  You can email him here.


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