Mark Finn is many things: author, actor, essayist, playwright and renown Robert E. Howard scholar — his Howard biography, Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, was nominated for a World Fantasy award in 2007. And I learned at the 2011 Armadillocon that Mark Finn also is one hell of a bartender. He took his role of toastmaster literally that year, shaking up signature cocktails during one of the room parties while wearing his signature fez.
As such, it only seemed natural for Mark to serve as my first Cocktail Hour guest bartender. Here, he pours us a bacon-spiked cocktail called the Blood and Thunder, inspired by Marly Youman’s recent novel Maze of Blood. Bottoms up!
Conall Weaver is tired. His mother is terminally ill, and he’s the only one who can care for her. His father, Doc Weaver, is one of several doctors living and working in Cross Plains, and he’s always making house call, delivering babies, tending to oil field injuries, and so on. So Conall has spent his adult life, scant as it is, tending to his mother’s needs as tuberculosis eats her away from the inside out. When she’s better, he can relax a bit. He can write. See, Conall Weaver is one of the greatest pulp writers of all time. His stories have appeared in Weird Tales and…oh, wait, you’ve heard this before, huh?
Well, think again. In Marly Youman’s Maze of Blood, we find the somewhat familiar life and times of Texas writer Robert E. Howard borrowed heavily from to prop up Youman’s magical realism novel, a dense and rich prose poem mash-up that reads fast and stays with you afterward.
If you don’t know anything about the life of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), that’s okay. I wrote a book, and you can check it out here. For those of you who do know something about how one of Texas’ greatest writers spent his days in Cross Plains, this will feel oddly familiar to you. Youmans didn’t so much as borrow from Howard’s life and times as she simply filed off the serial numbers. This may only have been a problem for me, and I acknowledge that fully.
For fans of Conan, Bran Mak Morn, and the rest of Howard’s body of work, you’ll find no new insights here. Instead, you’ll see a man struggling with creative exhaustion, with his mother’s impending death, with rejection, and the grind of day-to-day living in a small Texas town as its sole creative artist. Divorced from Howard’s biography, Youmans has leave to explore some uncomfortable truths about those final days in a way that would be anathema to any die-hard Howard fan. But these are human truths, grounded in sweat and blood.
Youmans’ language is exquisite. She is clearly and obviously a poet, and her skill at choosing simple words to evoke complex pictures is well-served here. And, if I may be so bold, she knows a lot about Howard’s life, as well. I’m not sure if she’s a closet fan or an avid researcher. I’d like to find out what drew her to the subject matter. But Max of Blood is a transformative work, as each even in Conall’s life is given resonance and stories told to him are filtered through his experience and retold on the printed page. That’s the essence of understanding Robert E. Howard, and Marly Youmans gets it.
It was also nice to see her treating the delicate subject matter of Howard’s suicide with respect and gravitas. Her Conall Weaver isn’t so much like Robert E. Howard as the book goes on. Some of the more outlandish myths around Howard serve the fiction better than the man.
In the end, Maze of Blood is a book I would tentatively recommend to less-sensitive Robert E. Howard fans, and unreservedly recommend to lovers of magical realism and stories about writers telling stories. There’s a lot of layers in Maze of Blood, but it’s that complication that makes the novel so rewarding.
In Honor of Maze of Blood, I’m calling this twist on the Old Fashioned a Blood and Thunder. It uses bacon and more bacon. I shouldn’t have to explain to any of you why that’s wonderful.
BLOOD AND THUNDER
2 ounces bacon-infused bourbon (See recipe below)
1/4 ounce Grade B maple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
A twist of orange
Optional cherry for garnish
Optional bacon slice for garnish
In a shaker, add 2 ounces bacon-infused bourbon, maple syrup, and bitters with ice. Shake for 30 seconds. Strain into a glass filled with ice. Squeeze the orange for a touch of acid, and garnish with the cherry and bacon.
4 slices of bacon, thick cut (I use Wright’s Applewood Smoked Bacon)
1 bottle of bourbon (common wisdom says buy a cheap bottle, like Four Roses, but I think a Texas brand is appropriate for this. Pick Something you like.
Cook your bacon in a skillet and reserve rendered fat. When bacon fat has cooled a bit, pour off the fan into a non-porous container, like a glass bowl. Pour the whole bottle of bourbon into a non-porous container. Don’t worry if you have some bits of bacon in there. You can even add a cooked piece of bacon to this mix. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it hang out overnight at room temperature, at least 6 hours. Put the bowl in the freezer for at least 24 hours. I like 72 the best. Very bacon-y. Strain the fat off of the bourbon and run the bourbon through some cheesecloth to catch the globs and bits. When the bourbon is clean and free of debris, put it back in the bottle and be sure to label it with a “B” for bacon on the cap, or you will get a surprise if you’re not careful!
Dear Mark Finn,
So pleased that you found things to like in the novel. Truly, I am grateful that you did, as I loved your account of REH’s life and always recommend it to the curious.
And so, in gratitude for your book, I will answer the question you have about “what drew her to the subject matter.” Perhaps it is a little surprising; I don’t know how it will appear to you.
As a child, I spent part of every summer in little bugtussle towns in a part of Georgia that felt kindred to hot, dry places in Texas. Half of the time I spent there was on my paternal grandparents’ sharecropped 40-acre farm–a very poor, a very different world than my adult world. When I came to read about Cross Plains (I was completely unable to change that perfect name), I knew exactly how a yearning young writer would feel, wandering in places that were not the least interested in and did not need a writer, that in some innocent sense sought to destroy him. I had been that out-of-place, home-but-not-home, observant person when visiting the two branches of my family in Georgia.
Moreover, there are two figures in my paternal family line who were driven, obsessive, bright, and socially awkward–who seemed to create their own eccentric worlds within the larger world, damn the consequences. One of them was also obsessed with weight-lifting and running in the early twentieth century, a time before those things were accepted. And I will readily admit that I am an obsessive sort of writer myself. So I felt REH as kindred, felt that I knew him, felt that he could have found a place in my family tree. In my life, I have loved (that complicated dance!) family members who seemed very much like him.
While I did read REH’s stories and poems (I think it’s sad he gave up on the poetry, though I understand why) and am fascinated by the whole idea of making iconic figures that stick in our cultural imagination, it was the life that most compelled me. I did not choose to make a book that would be solely “about” him–I wanted to shape it as I pleased, and so I do not claim the license of a biographer to use his name.
I like to do something different from what I have done before, each time I make a book, and this time I used a life as a kind of template. For me, that sort of license goes back to Shakespeare, who showed us the fascination of borrowing an outline and some details and then coloring at will–displaying the energy and freedom of bridging gaps, leaping from point to point.
So you might say that I ran to the coastal edge of Howard’s writing and leaped off into my own strange seas. Anything less would have been derivative. I wanted to make a book that did justice to a man’s essential yearning and loneliness. I wanted to praise and reveal the figure of a visionary caught in a complex maze that would have surprise and blind passages and beauty and savagery.
Well, I find that it has taken me more lines to explain what drew me to the material than I expected. Thank you again for your interesting, generous words, and for the revelation that is bacon-infused bourbon….
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Thanks so much for the peek behind the curtain. I totally get where you are coming from; I think people who read Howard and are moved by his prose and poetry take him in at the gut level–that deep, intense place where your emotions mingle with your sense memory. Howard draws that out of people, and I think when people become Howard fans, they personalize his writings in a way that I’ve never seen before with any other contemporary writer. They don’t just “get” Howard; they feel him deeply, and so much so that they internalize him, take him in, like a wood pulp Eucharist.
Many fans get lost there.
That assimilation of Howard’s life and times makes it very hard to write and sometimes even think objectively about REH. It took me years–years–to get right with some of the things Howard said and did. I had to almost break up with him for a time, in order to see him more objectively.
In short, I get where you’re coming from. If you’re ever in Texas in June, you should consider swinging by Cross Plains for Robert E. Howard Days. It’s a small town good time, with Howard as the silent guest of honor. I’ll even bring the bacon infused Bourbon.
Thanks for that invite, Mark! Will do–I was in Houston three weeks ago, on my way to Chile, so I have been on Texas soil recently. Maybe I’ll get to Cross Plains some day.
Yes, I definitely thought about REH fans when starting out on the path. They are so very strong on him, so devoted. Perhaps that should have daunted me!