M.J. Downing: Influences.

In my Senior year at Durrett High School, I asked a very pretty girl to go to the Prom with me. All my buddies were going to the Prom and had dates already. So, I spotted a girl who sat across the class from me in Humanities and just up and asked her. My actions won me some points for being cool, but it was just stupid desperation on my part, plus, Jeanie was really pretty.
She was also in the Advanced Program with all of the brainy kids with whom I was definitely not associated. They were all getting scholarships and awards for their academic work, while I had no idea what I would do the very next day, let alone after I graduated. But my action that day began a long, fruitful relationship in my life—though not with Jeanie, as you might think. She had the good sense to see me for the thick-headed oaf I was, whose only accolade as a senior came from being on the Basketball Homecoming Tug-O-War team. They needed me, because I could deadlift nearly four hundred pounds.
The relationship I speak of is connected to the book I show you above. See, having asked Jeanie to the prom, I ventured over to the Big A group at lunch and there met the fellow who was to be my best friend for life, my brother, Mike Brewer. Jeanie was always pretty quiet when I was around, but Mike, extending the welcome mat to me, a dull-eyed mouth breather, soon found out that we shared a reading history, primarily Doc Savage novels. I had read all of them, in addition to all the Edgar Rice Burroughs work I could find, all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and a great deal of similar fiction. Within minutes, Mike and I were friends, and he showed me my first Conan novel, which pulled me into the exciting world of Sword and Sorcery tales.
As quickly as I could, I made tracks over to the Taylor Drug Store in Indian Trail Shopping Center and found the copy of Conan the Adventurer in the picture above. If you look closely, the price on its cover shows that this is true—at least likely—for .95 is what I paid, plus tax. You can’t see it here, but the fragile binding on this 1966 book is all but gone, now. Pages are loose. If I read it, I have to take great care, for the cheap paper and old glue crackle every time I turn a page. Only the pressure of other books on the shelf around it holds it together. It, as well as other ancient treasures, has followed me from home to home over the years. This and other such books are part of the reason that Mike Brewer and I are still close friends, and it also stands as one of many influences on my writing life.
If anyone thinks that I write turgid prose, I can say, “Maybe, but look where I come from.” As a ‘C’ student in high school, I can truthfully claim, in my good friend Tim Roach’s words, that I am no scholar, just a boy from the suburbs who likes to read. And now, I like to write. This book is one of the starting points for my life as a writer, which shows a great deal about who I am.
For I was seventeen when I bought this book, and really, all I wanted was to be as confident and strong as the barbarian on the Frazetta cover and the colossal Conan who came to life on the pages within. And, yes, I desired, as only a seventeen year old boy can, the adoration of scantily clad women who appear on Frazetta covers and in Howard’s stories. Sex and heroic adventure drew me further into fiction. That had all started with Burrough’s Tarzan, who was the first action hero I read, but my knowledge of heroic adventure was also influenced by Huckleberry Finn, so I realized that sex wasn’t always part of the heroic milieu.
At the time, I had no idea that the Robert E. Howard, the author, had been dead for more than thirty years. If I had bothered to read the front matter, I would have seen that the four novellas within Adventurer had been published first in pulp magazine, Weird Tales, in the 1930s. One of the novellas, “Drums of Tombalku,” was published in Adventurer for the first time. L. Sprague De Camp finished the partial draft according to Howard’s outline. The Conan stories were written just three years before Howard took his own life, which, if I’d known at the time I read the book, might have been a dousing of icy water on my adolescent fantasies that those stories fed.
Knowing, too, that Howard’s ill-fated romance with Novalyne Price during that time period would leave him confused and alone might have tipped me off to the realities within which a man writes. However,I merely continued to indulge in those fantasies as any unconscious, hormone driven adolescent would. Much later, in my conversations with Mike Brewer, I would give thought to the complexities of Howard’s art and the manner in which his stories sprang from his desire to live through them, to create a bigger, more magnificent world of imagination.
For Howard, like Tolkien, created a fictional world, Conan’s Hyborian Age, to fit, loosely into our world’s legendary history, after the sinking of Atlantis, and this world captured my imagination before I ever set foot in Middle Earth. The influence of such writers as Kipling and H. Rider Haggard helped Howard with a set of place names that were at once familiar and exotic and a map that looked like it could have been this world . From Howard’s work, as from Tolkien’s, my mind traveled to other works invoked by those names and heroic characters. I began to see that everything fictional that I enjoyed reading shared source material with myths and legends of all cultures. If I still had those old volumes of 1958 Worldbook Encyclopedia that graced our bookshelves, I would be able to show you the thumb-darkened pages of the “M” volume, where, even as a small lad, I turned again and again to “Mythology.” And Robert E. Howard, as well as Mike Brewer, helped me see that it was all of one cloth, the comics, the myths, the Doyle and Burroughs fictions, and Howard’s fantasies. They became my license to create, which would be set in motion after I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
No writing of my own from that period survives. I had no confidence that I could sustain a narrative beyond a page or two. Plus, given my meager talents in pencil/ink drawing, I figured that I should just illustrate, on my own, what I loved. A weird combination of comic books, Frazetta covers, and DaVinci sketches, taught me human anatomy. Plus, I became a lifter and sought knowledge of my own musculature in order to make it heroic. That plan didn’t pan out so great, but it kept me thinking about stories, their settings and characters as well as climaxes and resolutions. I was first published in U.of L.’s Thinker journal as an artist of heroic sketches, and these came from my commitment to stories.
Though I still draw, from time to time, a concentration on fiction has blunted that desire. But last night, I reread “The People of the Black Circle,” the first novella in Adventures, looking again for traces of what motivates my fiction, and I found them in the action of Howard’s story. Despite a heavy dependency on adverbs in Howard, the action in his stories is as logical as it is fast-paced. The tight plot is hard to put aside, which made Howard attractive to the pulp editors of his day. Yes, the characters seem two dimensional in this action based narrative, but the two primary ones, Conan and his love interest, the Devi Yasmina, make choices that show a degree of complexity and illustrate one of the motives apparent in good heroic fiction: a desire for freedom, autonomy.
It doesn’t take much scholarship to see the desire for freedom that motivated Howard to write, either. He suffered work of various kinds, like most of us do, but he lived to write and be free. All of his characters possess a drive to determine their own destiny, no matter how the powers that be, mystical or political, threaten to control and confine them. I think that maybe, beyond the love of the sword play and all the sensuality, this is what I looked for and found in Howard’s work. This, alone, gives me reason to be thankful for my introduction to this book. I thank Mike for it as often as I can think to. Freedom to write, to try, fail, and try again keeps me going as a writer, and I find that I have my influences to thank, in addition to my good friend. With your kind permission, I will discuss some of them in my next postings, which I hope someone, anyone, reads.

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