Remembering a Friend

Sunday , 24, March 2019 4 Comments

My friend Steve Tompkins has been gone for ten years as of March 23. Seems like yesterday I found out about his passing. I had had a bad feeling as I could not get in touch with him and it turned out to be the worst.

Steve was a writer of non-fiction. There is a type of writer involved with certain literary genres who puts things in perspective or gives new insight. Robert E. Briney comes to mind. He wrote non-fiction pieces for Amra and and about Sax Rohmer. Steve Tompkins was in that vein.

I got to know Steve when I was the Official Editor of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association. One of the members gave me his address and I sent Steve a spec copy of the mailings. This would have been in early 1995.  Steve had been writing letters to the Conan comic books for some period.

He read a piece I wrote for my fanzine called “Lin Carter: The Inept Pastichist” (later reprinted and slightly touched up as “The Inept Pasticheur”). Steve said when he read that, he knew he was in the right place. He joined the apa and joined in the fun with “Lin Carter: Fan Gone Wrong” and “Rolling in the Aisles.” “Rolling in the Aisles” was a humorous deconstruction of the very irritating Lin Carter character Sigurd of Vanaheim, a supporting character in the L. Sprague de Camp/Lin Carter novels Conan the Buccaneer and Conan of the Isles. Steve was happy when Roy Thomas killed Sigurd in a gruesome fashion in the 1990s in one of the Conan comic books.

Not long after joining, I received a phone call from Steve which initiated the first of many, many phone calls up to his death. I remember we talked about Hitler and the Third Reich a lot.

Steve tackled various characters and writers in fantasy, especially sword and sorcery. He had an unfinished overview of Charles Saunders’ Imaro stories. He wrote one on lycanthropy and winter settings examining Karl Edward Wagner’s “Reflections for the Winter of My Soul.” He looked at “the northern thing” including Howard, Tolkien, and Keith Taylor’s Bard series.

Steve was a graduate of Columbia University. His job at the Bank of New York was to write apology letters for the bank that were written in a way the bank in no way was responsible. His writing background was put to good use for greater things.

His writing style could take a little getting used to. I can remember a few members of REHUPA grumbling about perceived pretense. In time people got used to him. He certainly bulked up the page count of the mailings.

His essays brought in all sorts of things. He might mention Slotkin’s theory of regeneration through violence on page and then Johnny Rotten a couple paragraphs later. Steve was also addicted to puns.

We traveled to Howard Days in Cross Plains in 1998. We met up in Dallas and I introduced him to the joys of beef fajitas at the Blue Goose Restaurant in Dallas. Two years later, we met up and shared a hotel room for Pulp-Con in Dayton, OH. There we checked out a diner called The Breakfast Club that he liked immensely.

Steve introduced me to David Gemmell. There was little in the way of sword and sorcery fiction in the middle 1990s. I happened to mention seeing this guy Gemmell’s books at the new Barnes & Noble bookstore. He urged me to give him a try.

Living in New York, Steve would take advantage of cheap flights to London. He would catch a flight on a three day weekend, hit the bookstores and return with suitcases of books. I have a number of David Gemmell books in hardback and paperback brought back by Steve in my den.  I got to read those often more than a year before they were released in the U.S.

I can remember Steve calling me up in late 1996 and telling me that George R. R. Martin had just released a big fantasy novel. If I could only hear him now on Martin’s unfinished series.

In time, Steve moved from the amateur press to small press publications including The Dark Man journal,  The Robert E. Howard Companion, and The Cimmerian. He wrote the introduction for Bison Books The Black Stranger and Other American Tales. He was the guy who figured out that George Orwell had read some of Robert E. Howard’s boxing stories in the pages of Fight Stories. He had an essay, “Gigantic Gulfs of Eons: Kull, Conan, and Tyrant Time” in The Barbaric Triumph, Don Herron’s follow up book of critical essays to The Dark Barbarian.

Steve expanded our horizons on what could be done with examinations of genre fiction. All to often, non-fiction pieces consist of surveys telling the name of a story and what happens and “Oh boy! Is this great!” fan-boy enthusiasm. He showed you could bring in all sorts of things and dig deeper exposing eternal truths present in fantasy fiction.

One of the biggest issues was Steve was getting some idea finished before something else grabbed his attention. Seems he was always enthusiastic about some new discovery.

I was probably the last one from REHUPA to talk to him on the phone. He had gotten food poisoning eating at a Burger King. At the time, he hoped to muddle through it drinking Gatorade to keep his electrolytes up. He ended up being admitted to the hospital with anemia. The sequence of events resulted in a fatal heart attack at age 48.  I can remember feeling punched in the gut when I found out about his death. There was a hole in my life when that happened. I wrote up a short piece for the old rehupa.com site and a tribute for REH: Two-Gun Raconteur. I miss his humor. I can remember e-mailing him about a dog we had at the time, Pepper the Shih-Tzu. Pepper had a very short fuse and snapped at my wife. She was going to have him put down. Steve sent me an e-mail with the message heading “Pulling for Pepper.” I ended up talking my wife out of having the dog put down and Pepper died of cancer at age 13.  Steve, hopefully we will see each other again.

Check out his bibliography at isfdb.org.

 

4 Comments
  • deuce says:

    An excellent post. Tompkins really was sui generis. Nobody could go from Robert E. Howard to Ian Fleming to Sergio Leone to Dr. Seuss to BEOWULF and then tie it all together like he could. One of a kind and gone way too soon.

  • Rick McCollum says:

    I remember Steve well, and liked him immensely. Never thought him pretentious. He was a strong voice for an intellectual approach to REH studies.

    • Cromagnon Man says:

      Shared many a SSOC letters page with Steve back in the day but regretfully never knew him personally. Could only ever marvel at his erudition and wit.

      And Rick; what a pleasure to find you here. Still treasure those drawings of yours from Engor’s Sword Arm which you gifted me in Cross Plains back in ’96.

  • Dave Smith says:

    Feels just as sad now as when I first learned of his passing. Steve was the guy who made me aware of Fagles’s translations of Homer; I had no idea they were out there. He sent me stacks of photocopies that we discussed. Alas, we corresponded only briefly, but I’ve saved lots of his work electronically. Brilliant man, and he always seemed to be several steps ahead of himself, so deep was his knowledge and energetic his enthusiasm to share his thoughts and insights. I’m so sorry he is gone.

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