I’m finishing up Final Edits for my book, which is going to be released by OSV in a couple of months. The Final Edit phase is like riding a wild pig: the animal is all there, you’ve even named it, but it runs all over the place and makes frequent shrill grunting noises and often threatens to carry the both of you right off of a cliff and into a steaming river of lava. Or is that magma? No, I checked: magma is underground, lava’s aboveground. That’s just one of the many millions of items you have to verify in the Final Edit phase.
But, as you writers out there already know, it isn’t just a matter of fact-checking, or even of correcting the multitudinous offenses against English grammar. Often you read entire paragraphs and wonder who the anti-intellectual adolescent was who lit THAT stinkbomb, and then realize with shame that is was YOU.
So, you work it out. You submerge yourself into the page like a paratrooper going behind enemy lines and you start blasting.
You call for support as needed, of course. During one particular bout in which I thought my prose lacked verve, I wandered over to my bookshelf to see if the work of any of my favorite writers could help me enliven things. I was also needing a fix of pure entertainment, a distraction from Final Edits so that I could return to them, refreshed.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan seemed to be the answer. Sometimes, a man just wants to read about a solitary barbarian who resolves all difficult situations with either a large sword or heavy drinking and implied hay-rolling with exotic wenches. I’m sure this reveals something completely scandalous about my nature.
Robert E. Howard
It had been many, many years since I read my yellowed old paperback copy of Howard’s classic stories, but I vaguely remembered exciting, bloody tales relayed with luxurious prose. I was in need of a little luxurious prose myself, so I opened myself to the first tale: The Thing in the Crypt.
It’s a great story. Conan escapes from slavery, and is chased by wolves to a hidden tomb in a hillside. Sneer all you want, Howard had a gift for moving you along from one paragraph to the next and imbuing the whole adventure with an epic, poetic sense of things that is hard for a dweeb like me to ignore.
I congratulated myself for picking the perfect book to inspire my final edits. I was enthralled as Conan, after being so long in chains, finds an ancient sword in the tomb, thereby regaining his manly dignity and sense of purpose. And then…and THEN…the old corpse on the throne comes to life! Ohmigosh. Chopping commences, as it should. Conan is thrashing away at this undead monster, but of course it still…keeps..coming…
It was right about here that I become aware of the—shall we say “quirks”?—of Howard’s writing that were nothing but marvelous to me when I was sixteen years old. For instance, consider this excerpt:
“Stalking clumsily across the chamber, the mummy advanced upon Conan like a shape of nameless horror from the nightmares of a mad fiend.”
Woah. I had to share that one with Ms. Beguiles. I think about Robert E. Howard sitting at his desk, trying to think of how to describe the mummy as it stalked across the chamber. I see Howard suddenly sit upright, seeing the episode playing out in his mind’s eye, as he says aloud: “The mummy advances upon Conan like…like…a what? Like…a jaguar. No, no, a jaguar’s South American, it takes you out of the story. Like..an elephant? No, too big. Like a demon? Ahh, that’s better. But too brief. I want ‘crazy, scary, awful.’ It’s like…a fiend! And not just a fiend, but a MAD fiend. The NIGHTMARE of a mad fiend. And in that nightmare there’s a nameless horror—it doesn’t even have a name, it’s so horrible…but no, it’s not even a nameless horror but just the SHAPE of a nameless horror!! THAT’S WHAT THIS MUMMY IS LIKE AS IT ADVANCES UPON CONAN!!!
The thrill involved in concocting these descriptive details was still pumping through Howard’s veins two pages later, the battle still raging, when Conan gets knocked on the ground and the mummy gets the advantage: “Then a grisly shape of nightmare horror and lunacy loomed over him.” That’s both nightmare horror AND lunacy, kids. This thing isn’t just terrifying, it’s totally nuts. You CANNOT rely on this mummy to make a single, rational decision about ANYTHING.
So, boy, was that break from Final Edits a hoot. And I hope this post isn’t taken as a mockery of my man, Robert E. Howard. He’s still the champ. And, if my editor should run across any descriptions of utterly horrible, nightmarish lunatics who have nightmares about nameless, insane fiends without shapes and who are not sane, she’ll know why.