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Field Report: Cross Plains, Texas, June 10-12

Robert E. Howard Days is an annual event that takes place just as the heat trends to nigh-unbearable in Texas. It’s also in a part of Texas that requires a car and a map to get there. This means that you have to want to come out for a visit. You fly into Dallas or Austin and rent a car (or hitch a ride with a fellow pilgrim) and make the two or three hour trek into the central part of Texas. It’s in Cross Plains where you first meet the various members of Project Pride, who have taken charge of the Robert E. Howard house and museum (on the National Registry of Historic Places, and now, a Texas Historical Marker unto itself). You tour the house, and you get to stand in the doorway of the room where Robert E. Howard wrote his stories and it’s moving. It’s really moving. People approach the room with reverence, and they are not disappointed.

It’s also in Cross Plains during Howard Days where you will meet fellow travelers, luminaries, and other assorted professional writers, artists, editors, and Big Name Fans for the first time, and you quickly learn that there are no barriers between the Guest of Honor and yourself, nor any of the other program participants. All through the weekend, in any of the sites and settings, between all of the panels and readings, you and the other fans are talking about Our Favorite Author with enthusiasm, and if you are one of those people for whom REH is your obsession and yours alone, getting to plug into an event like this is singular and unforgettable. Very few people, if any, ever go away from a Howard Days gathering underwhelmed, or feeling as if it weren’t worth the effort to go. Most people make plans to return.

Twelve miles separate Rising Star from Cross Plains on Highway 36, and yet, there are mile marker signs at regular intervals, like Burma Shave ads, and this beauty two miles outside the city limits.

This is my second home away from home. I go every year, to reconnect, recharge. It’s like a really cool family reunion. It’s been rough the last five years, for all of the reasons you probably know about, and a few you don’t. But this year? This was the best gathering in a long time.

Over the years, I’ve brought conservatively 50 or more people to Cross Plains; I’ve been going since 1997, and I’ve been active in REHUPA since 2002–twenty years, with only two or three years missed due to things like family tragedy, surgery recovery, and so forth. This year was a stellar effort. In addition to Janice, who would get the full-on three day experience, she inveigled seven other members of her family to drive in, see the sights, experience the magic of Howard Days. I mean, the only other year where I outdid that number of guests was 2006, the Centennial Year, when I brought in an entire radio troupe from Austin.

In my DM uniform. You know, just in case you weren’t sure who the geek was…

We drove in on Thursday, a logistical necessity, since I’d hit the ground running Friday morning. I was to moderate a panel and then run a special Dungeons & Dragons game for some lucky attendees (the theme of this years’ gathering was “REH and his Influence on Gaming”) that was built using my forthcoming rules for creating heists and capers in D&D and based on the classic Conan story, “The Tower of the Elephant.” After that, it was time for the banquet, where Guest of Honor Fred Malmberg would speak, and then, at 9 PM, Chris Gruber and myself would host “Fists at the Ice House,” a perennial favorite, where we’d talk about Howard’s love of boxing, his boxing stories, and we’d read excerpts from some of our favorite REH boxing stories. We’ve been doing this panel for fifteen years or so, and not only do some folks come to it every year without fail, but there’s always at least one person who walks up to us afterward, eyes wide, and says, “I…I…I had no idea he could be funny!” We just smile at them, and say, “Welcome,” and then they go and buy one or more of the boxing collections and we have another fan for life.

We had to move the banquet from the community center to the gym at the Baptist church, and we filled that room to capacity, too.

I was a bit worried about having everyone from Janice’s family on hand. I mean, it’s one thing to bring me home for Christmas, and it’s quite another to have them drive out from Waco and drop feet first into the hardcore nucleus of Robert E. Howard fandom. Who knew what they’d see? I couldn’t be there to translate.

As it happened, I needn’t have worried. Everyone grokked pretty quickly the importance of REH as a Texas writer, something he doesn’t always get credit for because people are too busy trying to peer around Conan’s broad shoulders to see what’s behind them. They also just had a cracking good time meeting the folks in Cross Plains, visiting the other sites in town, like the library and Woody’s classic car museum, and going to the open house at the local newspaper and getting the tour, making friends, etc. They all ended up on the front cover of the newspaper.

I’ve never made the paper! They got in on the first try!

This was also Janice’s trial by fire, because a lot of people were going to meet her for the first time and they were going to have opinions about her, me, us, and all the rest of it. Now, I wasn’t worried about Janice not getting along with anyone; she’s very personable and has never met a stranger. But that constant pressure, all the hugging, etc. can be a bit overwhelming.

Again, I needn’t have worried. Her uncle on her mother’s side even stayed to watch the D&D game I ran. They had a blast overall and I fully expect to see most of them back next year. The ones that don’t return will be replaced by friends they’ve managed to entice with their beguiling descriptions of friendly folks, literary shenanigans, and a top-notch Dairy Queen.

The Friday panel was an overview of the history of Howard’s properties in various games, starting way back at the beginning of tabletop role-playing, on through the modern day, where we have rpgs, board games, computer games, card games, and they are all imbued with a reverence and a fidelity to the source material that has been really refreshing to see. I moderated the panel, and even though there were six of us: Fred Malmberg, Bill “Indy” Cavalier, Jason Ray Carney, Funcom’s creative director Joel Bylos, and Monolith’s Matt John, I think we accorded ourselves quite well. Jason thoughtfully put together a PowerPoint presentation with images of all of the extant games, and we were able to key off of his slides and talk about some cool games, past and present.

Audience members are obscuring Fred Malmberg, Jason Ray Carney, and Joel Bylos, but this is a great picture of Indy, Matt John and myself.

The D&D game went over pretty well, I think. No one rage-quit, flipped the table, or threw dice at me. The adventure was a kind of sequel to “The Tower of the Elephant” where the party was hired to retrieve the special rope poor Taurus used in his ill-fated assault on the tower with Conan. I loved writing it, and I think I’m going to make it an official Polite Society playtest adventure.

Since I was gaming, I didn’t get to see the presentation of the REH Foundation Awards, but thankfully, you can get the rundown here.

The banquet was great; the food was really delicious, and on time, which is always a plus. But everyone was blown away by the Silent Auction, which was crammed to the gills with all kinds of great loot this year. All of the proceeds go back into Project Pride’s coffers to help keep the Howard House in good repair, offset expenses, and so forth. I wish I’d thought to get a picture of the room, with stuff on every table and people hovering over the books and prints like vultures. But I didn’t.

Me and Grub at the Ice House. We look like we’re about to start some shit. This is my most favorite picture of us at the Ice House ever. Janice took this, along with most of the other pictures with me in them. I’m glad she was here, or there wouldn’t have been ANY pics.

This year’s Ice House panel was a blast. We always end up with about 30 people or so, all sitting or standing on the concrete slab that marks the remnants of the place where Howard used to blow off steam on Friday nights, boxing and roughhousing with his buddies. Later, that hands-on experience would find its way into a body of work that’s roughly three times the size of his Conan output in titles, if not word count. Adding the funny westerns in, all told, about one-third of Howard’s total output is told in a southwestern tall lying vernacular that is unlike anything else he wrote. We showcase that during our readings, and it always goes over big. Grub was in fine form this year, having missed the last few get-togethers. I was just happy to have a wingman.

It’s not sexy, but hallowed ground is hallowed ground.

This was the part of the trip that Janice’s family got the most out of, I think. It’s one thing to have your daughter always bragging on her boyfriend/fiancée, and it’s quite another to see him in his element, in action. I was happy I got to perform for them, but I may have overdone it; they are already talking about me doing a reading for the family during Christmas…

Saturday’s panels were were a lot of fun. Paul M. Sammon returned to talk about the 40th anniversary of the 1982 sword and sorcery classic, Conan the Barbarian. Paul worked in publicity in L.A. at the time and got to cover the film extensively. He’s got a lot of great unseen and rare photos, and also a lot of funny behind-the-scenes stories. He’s a great storyteller himself, and the panel was more like an extended conversation with him.

I moderated another panel about adapting REH’s works to games, and it was kind of a repeat of the Friday panel, but a bit more technical in execution. We had a ball talking about what we did and how we did it, but Joel Bylos batted clean up on the panel when he broke out his gaming rig and treated us to about twenty-five minutes of a game Funcom was working on and then shelved for capricious reasons. It was a first person rpg Conan game, and it adapted the actual stories into adventures. He wowed everyone with “The Tower of the Elephant” (a weirdly-recurring theme throughout the weekend), showing Conan walking in the Maul in Zamora, talking to people about Yara and his tower, and then we got to meet Taurus in the walls of the tower’s gardens…voiced in the game by John Rhys-Davies! Yeah! Gimli! Sallah! I mean… I may have sworn directly into the mic when I realized who it was.

Saturday wrapped up with the final panel of the day, called “What’s Going On with REH?” and it’s a run-down of projects on the horizon or that just dropped. We then adjourned to the pavilion by the house, ate barbecue, and then the porchlight poetry session started. Open mic, reading Howard’s poems aloud, including “Cimmeria,” translated this year into Italian, Japanese, Gaelic, Norwegian, German, and French, and read by those same native speakers in attendance. If that sounds cool to you, it is. It’s way cooler than people think it will be.

Folks stayed at the pavilion, talking, drinking, and talking some more, until well past midnight. No one wants to call it and go home. That’s the power of our little family reunion. Our crazy little Relax-A-Con, our working vacation that we always overcommit to every year, and then do it again as soon as we’ve recovered.

Me and Jeb Boyt at the pavilion. My God, we are Man-Pretty.

That’s Howard Days, in a nutshell. Bobby Derie hands out free books; he’s been doing it for years, now. Ben Friberg brings home-made ice cream for folks. Everyone brings regional beverages from exotic places like Kentucky and Canada. We sign each other’s books, and take pictures with one another. Freebies abound, from upcoming projects to specific tchotchkes that tie into the yearly theme. The REH Foundation Press is on hand with books to buy, so you can see what they look like before you commit, and the gift shop is always full of loot and swag, including some rarities that always make people’s jaws drop.

One of the REH Foundation Press stalwarts, Stale Gismervik, brought his whole family in from Norway and they spent two weeks in Texas, driving around and seeing everything they could. Stale is an exceptional photographer, and he took a shit-ton of much better photos that have to be seen to be believed. You can go to his online magazine The World of Robert E. Howard and join and look at all of his photo albums; it’s so worth it.

And if Stale’s photos of Cross Plains, the Texas countryside, and the goings on at Howard Days, don’t motivate you to finally pull the trigger and plan on going next year, well, pardner, I reckon you ain’t never gonna.

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