Every year in June the small Texas town of Cross Plains holds the Howard Days celebration. Robert E. Howard was a prolific writer. He wrote short stories, poems, and a novel or two. His most famous creation is Conan of Cimmeria, who (unfortunately) most know from the Ah-Nold films. His other characters include Solomon Kane, a Puritan driven to destroy evil in its many forms; Kull of Atlantis, a barbarian who becomes king by his own hand; and Bran Mak Morn, king of the Picts, who fights to keep his land and people free from the Roman Empire. Howard's stories range from serious to comedic, covering genres such as horror, historical adventure, Western, sports, and of course Heroic Fantasy, a genre which he pretty much defined, if not created. He was born in 1906 and died by his own hand in 1936.
Cross Plains is where Howard's house stands, and it has been designated an historical landmark. The town is small, with one stoplight, a Dairy Queen, a Subway, and a few local restaraunts (more on that later). Each year fans of Howard's work descend on Cross Plains to see the house where the author did his work, attend panels, take in the Barbarian Festival, and just hang out with fellow Howard aficianados. The townsfolk are friendly for the most part...being a small town, strangers stick out, especially ones with long hair and tattoos(like me), and there are the occasional stares and glares, but it's no big deal. The folks who run Project Pride, the organization that takes care of Howard's house, are always happy to see us all, and you couldn't find a nicer bunch of people anywhere.
The only motel in town is the Motel 36. It has only a dozen or so rooms, so it books up fast. It's close walking distance to the Howard House , and there's the town grocery store next door, and next over from the store is Jean's Feed Barn. Jean's is the best place to eat in Cross Plains, and I would put their breakfasts up against that of any eatery, be it chain or independant. The biscuits and gravy are worth killing for, and the bacon and hashbrowns are always crispy and perfect...and the portions are generous as well. If you leave Jean's hungry, it's your own damn fault.
It was raining when we arrived on Thursday, and the dark clouds brought a welcome lowering of the temperature for the rest of the day. It started to hail a bit at one point, but not for long. Dinner was had in nearby Brownwood at a place called Humphrey Pete's, where I had a bison burger, which was pretty good.
This year's Howard Days focused on his poetry, and guests included Donald Sydney Fryer, and Larry Thomas, Texas Poet Laureate. Both gave entertaining readings and had interesting things to say about Howard's work in the arena of poetry and writing in general. Thomas was this year's Guest of Honor at the Friday night banquet as well. Afterwards, at the Pavillion next to the Howard House, a Poetry Throwdown, complete with prizes was held. It was fun, with lots of participation besides the usual suspects. Saturday the Barbarian Festival took place downtown...it's your basic small-town festival, with pony rides, tents selling all kinds of crafts and things, and eats from snow cones to funnel cakes to hot dogs. Saturday evening was the Caddo Peak BBQ. The folks who own the Caddo Peak Ranch are kind enough to host a picnic for us each year. The food is good and the view is spectacular. Near the end of the evening, the sun was obscured by hazy clouds, making it look like the eye of Odin was peering down at us, giving his blessing for our celebration of a great skald.
The main reason I enjoy attending Howard Days (besides the fact that he's my favorite author) is to see everyone and hang out with folks I usually only see once a year, and meet new people,too. Oh, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Mead Circle. This is a variation on an old Nordic ritual ( known as sumbdel, I think) that my good friend Big Mike started including in our own gatherings years ago, and we had one at Howard Days after hours. It involves a very large drinking horn and several bottles of mead. All willing participants stand in a circle, and partake of the horn. When the horn reaches you there are three proclomations you must make. The first time the horn gets to you, you are to drink to an ancestor or hero . The second time you are to drink to one who is present. The third is to make an oath, or boast of an achievement you have made. After these three hails are made, the horn is passed until all are completely drunk or the mead is all gone. There are two more modern elements that have been added to the Mead Circle: 1) If someone yells "Hail Ragnar!", all must respond by yelling "Hail Ragnar's Beard!"...if you don't know what that's about, go watch The Vikings with Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine, and all will become clear; 2) If the horn reaches you and it is empty, you are to look at the person who had it last and say to them, "Bastard!", and go refill the horn. I wish I had some pictures of the Mead Circle that was held, but I was too busy drinking to take any pics ( big surprise, I know...such rituals call to my Nordic blood...plus mead is the drink of the Gods). Yes, a good time was had by all, I think, although I did miss some of my good friends that couldn't make it this year ( it just wasn't the same without you, Charles).
Penguin Classics has announced that a colection of Howard's work will be released soon...this is good news, because Howard's work has been snubbed by critics for decades . This is because he primarily wrote for the pulp magazines of his time, and critics seem to have a hard time considering any type of genre work as serious literature. This will go a long way to validate his works, and maybe get some readers who are stragers to his work to take a look.
One last side bit...there was a monkey theme running at the grocery store next door to the motel. In the candy section, this item was found...when full, it looked like this screaming cartoon monkey had a mouthfull of multi-colored worms...this amused me, for some reason. Later that weekend, I looked at the toy vending machines outside the store. I always loved these as a kid, and, Hell, I still think they're pretty cool. Guess what one of the machines contained...that's right, monkeys! It's a good thing I didn't spot it earlier , because I probably would have put $20 worth of quarters in it to get all ten. As it was, I managed to restrian myself ( mostly because I dropped a lot of cash at the Howard House gift shop) to only getting one monkey. He looks like he may be carrying an invisible platter, or he's holding up his hands in the universal gesture of "What the Hell?" Yes, I, a supposedly adult man, spent 50 cents on a tiny plastic monkey, and I make no apologies for it.
All in all, it was a great mini-vacation. I got to see old friends, spend time at the house and town of my literary hero, eat lots of good-tasting-but-bad-for-you-food, pass the mead horn, read some poetry, buy lots of books, and get a tiny plastic monkey, who now resides on my desk. Life is good, sometimes. Hail to you all!
Hail the Tiny Monkey!