By Mark Finn
Once upon a time there was one major biography of Robert E. Howard. It was Dark Valley Destiny by L. Sprague De Camp. While readers might find the many recollections from people who knew REH personally to be fascinating, the whole was overlaid with a massive amount of pop-psychologizing. While LSdC spoke highly of the Conan stories, he adopted a patronizing, if not downright dismissive attitude toward much of the rest of his work. So REH fans were stuck with something that had splendid detail, but was locked into positions that were unconvincing to flat-out offensive.
Not any more. Mark Finn has finally written the answer to DVD. Blood and Thunder uses the wonderful detail de Camp amassed in his interviews, but eschews the spurious psychoanalysis and smug condescension of the former. Finn’s basic premise is that Howard was a man addicted to telling a lively story. That may not be much of a stretch when we consider his chosen career and the way many of the tales from his letters turn out to be very tall. The memoirs of Novalyne Price (later made into a film as The Whole Wide World) do a lot to round out this study of one of Sword & Sorcery’s most influential writers.
Finn examines the impact of Howard’s family life on his career as a writer and his attitude toward life. He takes a cautious view that friction between his parents and the social disruption of the Oil Boom years in Cross Plains contributed to a level of stress that he was ill-suited to cope with. Howard’s suicide in 1936 was not a random impulse, but part of a personal crisis that had been building for a long time. To his credit, Finn does not boast of having “solved” the riddle of REH. He freely admits that the best you can do with a man so contradictory, so enamored of his own myth making, is make tentative conclusions.
On a more definite note Finn looks at all aspects of REH’s writing, from tall-tale Westerns to boxing stories to Oriental Adventures to Conan and Sword & Sorcery. Finn relates Howard’s work to his personal tastes, opinions, interests, and life in a way that shows how his work is a reflection of Howard’s delight and disgust with the world he lived in. While it’s perhaps too much to expect a full scale depiction of Howard’s life AND times, Finn does not neglect to explain what life was like in Cross Plains from 1906 to 1936. He delves into diverse aspects from farming to the chaos of the Oil Booms to impromptu boxing matches in the icehouse to spinning yarns on the back porch.
Blood and Thunder is the new standard by which biographies of this talented, lively, and enigmatic writer will be judged.