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Robert E, Howard’s Complete Conan of Cimmeria, Volume One:
Interview with Editor Patrice Louinet
By Edward Waterman
(April 23, 2003)

            In April of 2003, the long awaited first volume of Robert E. Howard’s Complete Conan of Cimmeria (1932-1933) published by Wandering Star was released to the public. It is a lavish production of love and admiration. There is no equal to this book. For seventy years Conan fans have been wanting to read Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales as he meant them to be read. Finally, we are able to read these stories as he wrote them, without the tampering of editors or other writers. The stories come alive with spectacular ferocity and passion -- sparked by Howard’s unfettered prose and taken to new heights by the exquisite illustrations and paintings of award winning artist, Mark Schultz. The book itself is a stunning reminder of a time when books mattered -- when it was important for the grandeur of the book to reflect the greatness of its contents. Printed on custom, acid free paper with stitched binding, embossed cover, gilted-edging – this book is everything a book lover could imagine, and everything a Howard fan would want. In my experience, it is the pinnacle of Conan publishing. It is simply the greatest book of Conan tales ever printed or likely to be printed. It is a… beautiful book.

            The editor of this new book, Patrice Louinet, was born in 1967 in Limoges, France. He first discovered books featuring Robert E. Howard’s Conan character in 1983, and Howard's non-Conan works one year later, and was captivated by the literature. An admirer of Howard’s literature, he made his first pilgrimage to Cross Plains, Texas (Howard’s hometown) in the Winter of 1989, and has revisited the town and its Howard museum many times. Patrice completed a Ph.D. dissertation on Howard in 1990 and a Pre-Doctoral Thesis on the author in 1992. After several essays for amateur publications and fanzines, his first journal article appeared in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies in 1997. In addition to his essays, Patrice has been working on a full-length critical book on Howard’s life and work for several years. He currently works as a teacher in Meudon, France (near Paris) which has been his hometown for the last three years. Patrice has recently completed editing Robert E. Howard’s Complete Conan of Cimmeria Volume One (1932-1933) which has just been published by Wandering Star Publishers.


EW:  These new Conan books from Wandering Star are the realization of every die-hard Conan and Howard fan’s dreams. It’s an amazing coup to win the editorship on such a prestigious publishing endeavor. How did you get involved in this project?

PL:  In late 1999, Rusty Burke asked me to revise an essay I had authored on the chronology of the composition of the early Conan stories, in view of inclusion in the first Conan book. I accepted and also volunteered to establish the writing chronology of the Conan tales so that the stories could be presented in the order Howard wrote them. I guess my enthusiasm and dedication showed, since Rusty eventually asked me if I would be interested in editing the Conan series. It was quite a surprise to get this proposition, since I am French and live in France. Needless to say, my answer was immediate and positive.

EW:  Howard has quite a following in France, doesn't he?

PL:  I would say he has more of a “cult author” status than anything else. With the exception of the Conan stories, Howard is not in print in France, and hasn’t been for a number of years. All French Howard devotees -- myself included -- are indebted to François Truchaud, who was responsible for the publication of some 40 Howard books in about ten years. NéO, the company which published Howard’s non-Conan books, was a relatively small outfit and the books were distributed in specialty bookstores only. This peculiar situation, combined with Truchaud’s introductions, superb covers by Jean-Michel Nicollet and of course the contents of the books led to the creation of a core readership that couldn’t get enough Howard stories to read.

It is a difficult thing to compare the French and the American market, but the NéO books, oversized trade paperbacks, had initial print runs of about 5,000 copies each, and many were reprinted, some several times, over the years. (The print runs for the Conan books were of course much higher). These are quite respectable figures for books that had such an irregular distribution (to give you another element of comparison, in France, no publisher ever succeeded in issuing a complete set of the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It has been tried several times and in different formats, but never successfully).

Thanks mostly to François Truchaud, we all very soon became aware that Howard -- not only Conan -- was special, that here was an author to be reckoned with. The difference between Conan and Howard’s other characters was discernible, of course, but we probably felt it much less than in the USA. You have to remember that the Conan pastiches were never successful here, that the comics didn’t really take off until after the first movie was released and that the early paperback editions didn’t feature Frazetta covers. 

EW:  What about the text of the stories? How are you putting the actual book together?

PL:  The first task of the job was to select which version of the stories we would be working from. We worked from Howard’s typescripts in as many instances as possible; when these are no longer extant, we used the first published version of the tale.

In the immense majority of the cases, the electronic versions of the texts were supplied by Dave Gentzel. Dave is a wonder to work with: his e-texts are not only most of the time perfect, but he also adds his comments and suggestions concerning specific problems. The results were then checked independently by Rusty and myself against our copies of the typescripts or pulp pages. Typical problems at this stage include problematic hyphens, with which Howard was wildly irregular, suspected typos and dubious words.

Rusty did the lion’s share of the work when it came to researching rare or fairly esoteric words, while I checked Howard’s drafts. The bottom line always was: stay as close to Howard’s text as possible, and only change in case of flagrant error. Howard’s idiosyncratic spellings were systematically respected. We pondered on certain words or expressions for quite a long time. An example that comes to mind is Howard’s use of the expression “to swine my kingdom”, which baffled us for a long time until we found the expression used several times by Jack London, a writer Howard admired. This process of verification lasted until the very last minute, and Stuart Williams, who did the typesetting, was very patient with us.

EW:  Is  pure text really so important and why?

PL:  When I started working on the Conan texts, one element that came out as a surprise was that the Weird Tales texts, long thought to have been "pure", had also been censored in several instances: lines of dialogues that were too sexually explicit and several of Conan's oaths were systematically toned down or excised. It very much seems that Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, had a somewhat romantic idea of the Cimmerian, and thus censored dialogue and rejected tales that would not conform to his vision. Other editors decided that Howard committed mistakes in his stories and altered them to fit their conception of the stories and their chronology, or that Howard's style was not good enough, so that they rewrote -- paraphrased, rather -- entire paragraphs. It seemed that every editor wanted to impose their conception of Conan onto the reader, and had no scruples about achieving this by manipulating the texts. My work was simply to present the Conan tales as Howard wrote them, and certainly not to alter the stories to make them fit my conception of the character.

EW:  There's some pretty rare stuff in these Conan books I understand.

PL:  The Howard and Conan fans are indeed in for a series of treats. There is material in these pages that has never appeared before, including the first version of “The Phoenix on the Sword”, as first submitted to Weird Tales. This is the version that Farnsworth Wright sent back to Howard, asking for some rewriting. The draft is of course interesting for this historical aspect, but in rewriting his story to meet Farnsworth Wright’s requirements, Howard had to let go of a very important passage that is essential to the understanding of Conan’s personality. Remember that we are speaking of the very first Conan story, while Howard was still very much creating and developing his character. This passage is, in my opinion, as important as the often-mentioned closing lines of “Beyond the Black River” or Conan’s discussion with Bêlit on his philosophy of life in “Queen of the Black Coast.”

Other never-seen material includes Howard’s maps of the Hyborian World, also conceived at the outset of the series, as well as several synopses. “The Scarlet Citadel”, a fan-favorite, is printed here from Howard’s surviving final typescript for the first time.

EW:  This book is a deluxe, high quality edition that is profusely illustrated. Does Howard’s work need to be illustrated?

PL:  Howard doesn’t need to be illustrated, as his prose is very evocative and invites the reader to create his own mental images. But certainly, some stories demand to be illustrated; I would guess they are an illustrator's delight, and at the same time quite a challenge to illustrate. The stories jump from pseudo-Assyrian to piratical or pseudo-Aztec, from the epic to the more intimate, from adventure to fantasy. Howard had this knack of creating memorable scenes in his stories -- you may have forgotten the plot of "A Witch Shall be Born," but you won't forget the crucifixion scene. Who can forget the dance of Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast”? Or Conan’s first encounter with Yag-kosha? Who wouldn’t want to illustrate these scenes, to give them an added dimension of life?

In the case of the first volume, I had been aware of Mark Schultz’ work for years, since Xenozoic Tales first came out. At first, I wondered how Mark would handle the job, and came away particularly impressed, most notably with his choice of scenes to illustrate and his approach to composition. It was also particularly refreshing to see that Conan could change clothing between one story and the next, adapting to the climate and the situations!

EW:  Obviously, it’s very expensive to include illustrations for a book. Do you think this high quality format (binding, paper, etc.) is important for Howard’s work? Why?

PL:  I think the Howard fans -- at whom the books are aimed -- can only love such quality. In a world where such words as “limited” or “deluxe” have become commonplace for books that do not really merit the appellation, the Wandering Star books are products of love. Marcelo Anciano is doing an incredible job designing these books, all collectors’ items. Obviously these are not meant to attract new readers, but are for the true connoisseurs. Before the end of the year, the more affordable paperback versions will enable new generations of readers to encounter Howard in a restored edition for the first time at an affordable price.

EW:  Let's talk about Howard's views on barbarism. Considering that what Howard meant when he spoke of “barbarism” has been shrouded in mystery for the last 70 years, and also considering that this book features Howard’s most famous and dominant barbarian, is there anything in this new set of Conan books that will shed any light on the subject?

PL:  The answers are all in the book, by which I mean in the stories. It is certainly not for me to decide what Howard meant by “barbarism”; I do have my opinion on the subject of course, and you will find some of my ideas in the essays, but every reader should draw his own conclusions by reading Howard’s prose. The good news being that, for the first time ever, he will have the assurance that it is Howard’s -- and only Howard’s -- words he is reading.

EW:  How many essays have you written for the Conan books, and what was your goal in writing them?

PL:  For the first volume, I authored the introduction and an essay titled "Hyborian Genesis". The introduction is aimed at the general reader while the essay is more scholarly. "Hyborian Genesis" will be featured in each of the three books, each portion going into some detail of the stories' background, notably about their composition history, the sources behind certain episodes and also their echoes in Howard's other writings. The portion that appears in the first volume is longer than the next ones, since I examine the conditions that presided over the creation of the character. In both instances my aim was to provide the reader with some background about the author, the series and the stories.

EW:  Some interpret Howard’s writing as advancing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romantic view of the Noble Savage? Do you agree?

PL:  I don’t see how the stories could possibly reflect such a view and make of Conan a romantic character. I am sure Atali, the Frost-Giant’s Daughter, would agree with me. Howard once stated his own position on the subject of the Noble Savage:

“I have no patience with the depiction of the barbarian of any race as a stately, god-like child of Nature, endowed with strange wisdom and speaking in measured and sonorous phrases. Bah! My conception of a barbarian is very different. He had neither stability nor undue dignity. He was ferocious, brutal and frequently squalid. He was haunted by dim and shadowy fears; he committed horrible crimes for strange monstrous reasons…”

I pretty much think that this is what we get in the stories, too.

EW:  So you're saying that Howard did not admire barbarians, then?

PL:  I am saying that he did not idealize barbarians and barbaric life, which is a different thing. Certainly Howard was fascinated with the concept of barbarism, and the Conan series is ample testimony to that. Certainly some of the less interesting Conan tales present a character that is evidently an idealized barbarian, but it is not possible to generalize from these examples. The Conan stories may appear simple on the surface, but, at least for some, they can become very complex when you have scratched the veneer of escapism. "Beyond the Black River", for instance, concludes with Howard's famous "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind.  Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph." Is Howard idealizing barbarians here? Admiring them? Howard scholars have been debating the meaning of this passage for years now, and will doubtless continue to do so for a long time.

EW:  Would you say this is part of the appeal of the stories?

PL:  Definitely. The Conan stories can be read and enjoyed on several levels. Readers have long been familiar with the Conan stories as escapist literature; it is my hope that these new editions will help people realize that this is not all there is to these stories.

EW:  This brings me to my main question, what is it about the Conan stories that have captured the imagination of readers for generations? In your opinion, why are they, and Conan, so popular?

PL:  I think several factors are at work here. The first is the incredible diversity of the stories, miles away from any formula, so common with most pulp fiction characters. Having read a Conan story doesn’t put you in any privileged position to guess much about the next. The times, places, period of Conan’s life, general mood of the tale, even the importance given to Conan (the domineering lead character in several tales, but acting mostly offstage in some others), everything is subject to a change. It is a rare occurrence indeed when there is so little predictability in a series, and it gives the Conan tales an intense feeling of freedom.

The second factor proceeds from the first: Howard needed to be in contact -- as he had it -- with his characters. There is sincerity in all these stories, a sincerity that transcends even the routine and bad Conan stories. Howard evidently felt about his character and his stories, and this transpires throughout. None of the pastiches ever came close to that.

Last element, Howard’s characters and themes are as relevant today as when the Texan first committed them to paper. Unlike many pulp heroes' stilted sexuality and cardboard characterization, Howard's protagonists have motivations that a modern can still perfectly relate to. As to the themes of the stories, Howard's observations about barbarism and civilization (with all the ambiguity and relativity he infused those terms) are as relevant today as they were in Howard's day, perhaps even more.

EW:  What do you hope to accomplish with this project?

PL:  To establish a “standard” edition of the Conan stories that will help Howard gain some credibility as an important author in the genre. Incredible as this may seem, in seventy years, the Conan stories -- one of the most influential Fantasy series ever penned -- had never been published as Howard wrote them in a uniform collection. Howard was plagued by editors who were obviously at odds with the man who had created the character and they went to great lengths to belittle him at every possible occasion. It was high time the stories and their creator were put in a more sympathetic light.

EW:  Are there any authors who originally wrote for the old 1920’s and 1930’s pulp magazines who have gained literary recognition?

PL:  Several come to mind, with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Howard Phillips Lovecraft leading the way. The body count in Hammett is probably too high for most Academics’ tastes, but these three writers are enjoying growing literary recognition.

EW:  So it’s not a lost cause?

PL:  It can’t be a lost cause. Howard’s writings -- the best of them -- have what it takes to stand the test of time. The stories exist; we now have to tell people that they are out there, and are worthy of their attention.

EW:  I am already itching for Wandering Star’s second volume of Conan of Cimmeria. When is it scheduled to come out?

PL:  If all goes well, it will be out before the end of the year.

EW:  That is excellent news! Thanks, Patrice. It has been wonderful interviewing you.

PL:  Thank you, Ed.

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