Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Conan Country

If you corner me and tell me about the “really weird dream” you had last night, chances are you will  see me smile and nod a lot doing your recounting. Every once and a while you might notice that the nod is at an off time, the smile a little too quick.

I'm not listening.

Last night I had this really weird dream. No, no wait stopping nodding and hear me out. Last night I dreamt that I was running this convocation in the sleepy little West Texas town of Cross Plains, home of “Two-Gun Bob” Howard.

In part it was a gaming convention, in another seemingly inexplicable part it was some manly man contest. I'd finish running a gaming session (who knows what, maybe that TSR Conan rpg from the 80s I like so much) and then run off to ref a Fight Club-like bare-fisted slugfest. I think your grandfather was in it too and then he turned into an artichoke.

It's not the first time Cross Plains has crept into my dreams. It's not because I am a raving REH fan—I have an on and off again love/hate thing over the years with the writer—but because I had a personal connection there for a time in my life.

Back up to the early 90s, my gaming—nay my entire geeky—past was buried and covered over with six solid feet of Austin slackery (seriously my friends and I were straight out of central casting of a Richard Linklater movie). For about five years solid I played on a city league team with a group of guys I mostly knew from alternative journalist rags and other DIY projects.

About two weekends a month, late on a Friday night we'd jam pack a couple cars, crank up the maudlin AM country stations and head out to one of our friend's family ranch right off the road between Cross Plains and Brownwood.

The ranch's guest house was a rough limestone and timber business, charming even in its rustic simplicity and 50's cowboy kitsch. By day we'd spend our time walking the ranch, shooting at old bottles, swimming in the lake, and sleeping off hangovers. Nights were spent slow grilling steaks, drinking, dancing (if we brought the girls), making bonfires, and more drinking.

There were a lot of quiet moments too. Quiet moments spent reading and feeling something primal and Texan out there. Many of those moments, when they weren't spent just watching the heavens free of light pollution slowly mosey by, were spent reading through a dusty stack of books at the house.

Those books were almost to a copy, cheap vanity press affairs. The kinds of local histories where the town amateur historian weaves half a book of deadly dull genealogical type material in with half a book of pure lurid mythology. And when you are in a place like Cross Plains, where the sheer violence of frontier life stuck around later than many places, that kind of local history is amped up really loud.

There were countless tales of Comanche abductions, scalpings, and small-scale massacres. The more honest (and less obviously racist) books also recounted the massacres and raids from Anglos that egged those incursions. 

Those tales didn't just stop with the point after the Civil War when the Comanches were finally defeated as people in the area, it kept marching forward with the account of a gunfighter here, a massacre there over the barb wiring off of common grazing lands. Later you'd hear about the brawls and murders of passion of the oil men.

Reading all that it was impossible not to think of Howard's life and writing. Not to think of the frontier, not that far distant from the time of his writing, that so many others have talked about as his greatest influence. The haunting influence of the ghosts of the land around you—and the titillation of those stories.

From those moments on for me, Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and the others became characters that had one foot in the wildest flights of fantasy and another in a very real and earthly place that I seen, touched, and ruminated on. It has made those books a bit rawer and more uncomfortable in my mind, but something closer and more visceral.

And isn't that what the best and deepest of fantasy should do?


  1. Count me in too. A very fine point in there.

  2. Totally. I've never been to Texas, but from what I've heard it seems to have more of that visceral sense of historical place than many others.

    It would have been great to see what Howard might have written about the history of Texas and the West in general.

  3. I've been thinking about what you wrote - and I'm wondering if Conan had more in common with the characters from the tall tales and dime novels of the old frontier than anything of European origin - something which I've never considered before.

    Cool. :)

    - Ark