Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bootleggers & Gangsters: A Day in the Life of Robert E. Howard By Todd B. Vick

Prior to Robert E. Howard owning an automobile it was his custom when no ride was available, and he wanted to go somewhere, to simply start walking down the road until he could hitch a ride with a willing passerby. This practice is confirmed by his father, Dr. I.M. Howard, in a June 21, 1944 letter to E. Hoffman Price. Dr. Howard told Price, “[I] have known him to start hitchhiking to Ft. Worth or Brownwood to see a fight before he owned a car of his own. And when he was just [a] slender youth.”[1] Going to fights was not the only reason Robert would take off down the road attempting to hitch a ride to his destination. He also hitched when he wanted to go see friends, movies, and on occasions when he just wanted to explore.

East Pecan Street
Coleman, Texas; circa late 1920s
In a September 5, 1928 letter to Harold Preece, Robert describes how he and Tevis Clyde Smith “walked out on the highway, with no program in view, no idea or especial wish.”[2] On this occasion, Smith and Howard simply wanted to see where the road took them. They were out exploring, and agreed to accept a ride from the first car that stopped, no matter who it was. They were eventually picked up by a friend, “a most interesting man, who was in his younger days a rover and a wanderer, a detective, a tramp, and other things better left unmentioned.”[3] This friend was driving around with a young school teacher (neither of whom are named in the letter). The friend and teacher were basically doing the same thing as Smith and Howard: they wanted to see where the road took them. So, Smith and Howard jumped into the car and the four of them drove around the countryside for a spell until they arrived at Coleman, Texas. Coleman is a “town some thirty miles west of Cross Plains.” They “spent some time at a bootleg joint just outside the outskirts of town, both going there and returning thence.”[4]

While at this bootleg joint, Howard ran into an old-timer, who was around 80 years old, whom Howard had known for some time. Howard bought the old-timer a beer and listened to his stories while everyone else did their own thing. The place was probably hopping with a few locals who knew the joint existed. When I initially read Howard’s account it struck me as odd. First, in Central and West Texas in the middle of Prohibition, bootlegging operations were simple and small, located in areas in the sticks away from any town and difficult to reach. Second, these operations typically contained only a small distillery run by one or two people. And they were intentionally located in hard to reach places to keep others away, such as a small hole in the sides of hills, or the walls of creek and/or river beds. This was also to keep the outfit hidden from the Texas Rangers who were busy shutting these small operations down. Moreover, the alcohol that was made at these small operations were bottled on site and distributed away from the operation itself. So, for Howard and his friends to be at a bootleg joint that was large enough to serve people on site was extremely rare. It also probably meant the local police were aware of the place and were paid in cash and alcohol to look the other way. I found this interesting enough to include it in a research road trip I was doing in and around Coleman, Texas. What I managed to dig up is, to say the least, quite intriguing.



Sunday, October 22, 2017

Queen by Fire and Steel and Slaughter: Bêlit’s Hymn By Karen Joan Kohoutek

Robert E. Howard’s short story “Queen of the Black Coast” introduced Conan’s first love, Bêlit, a passionate, ruthless pirate queen full of “the urge of creation and the urge of death” (128). Her name comes from the same storehouse of Canaanite/Assyrian legends that brought deities like Ishtar and Derketo into Howard’s Hyborian Age fiction. In real-life legend, Bêlit belonged to the same pantheon, often associated with Ishtar and Derketo, although it’s hard now to know whether the goddesses were popularly connected at the time of their active worship, or whether the association happened when the sources were later compiled out of varied lore.

            In either case, Howard’s Bêlit namechecks two goddesses with whom her namesake was syncretized (Ishtar and Derketo), and also mentions Bel, who was her counterpart’s father in some legends and her husband in others, saying, “Above all are the gods of the Shemites – Ishtar and Ashtoreth and Derketo and Adonis. Bel, too, is Shemitish…” (Howard 247).

            The following tidbits are taken from The Story of Assyria, by Zénaïde  Ragozin, known to have been one of Howard’s sources:

            “As to the female deity of the Canaanites, ASHTORETH (whom the Greeks have called ASTARTE), she is the ISHTAR and MYLITTA and BÊLIT (“BAALATH,” “Lady,”) of the Assyro-Babylonian cycle of gods, scarcely changed either in name or nature; the goddess both of love and war, of incessant production and laborious motherhood, and of voluptuous, idle enjoyment , the greatest difference being that Ashtoreth is identified with the moon and wears the sign of the crescent, while the Babylonian goddess rules he planet Venus, the Morning and Evening Star of the poets” (107 – 108).

            “The planet Venus appearing in the evening, soon after sunset, and then again in the early morning, just before dawn, it was called Ishtar at night and Bêlit at dawn, as a small tablet expressly informs us; a distinction which, apparently confusing, rather tends to confirm the fundamental identity between the two, -- Ishtar, ‘the goddess,’ and Bêlit, ‘the lady’” (19).

            “In ASCALON, where the goddess was worshipped under the name DERKETO, she was represented under the form of a woman ending, from the hips, in the body of a fish” (111). This is of particular interest to Howard readers, since we know that Bêlit’s “fathers were kings of Askalon!” (Howard 243).

            Ragozin also states, “To the Canaanites, the Sun and Moon – the masculine and feminine principles, as represented by the elements of fire and moisture, the great Father and Mother of beings – were husband and wife. … in Ascalon and the other cities of the Philistine confederation they both assumed the peculiarity noted above, together with other names, and became, she, the fish-goddess Derketo, and he, the fish-god Dagon (from dag, fish, in the Semitic languages)” (114).

            Of course, Derketo is mentioned as a goddess in Howard’s stories; Dagon is well-known, especially from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but also appearing, connected with Derketo, in Howard’s story “The Servants of Bit-Yakin.”



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Weird Talers: Robert E. Howard and Seabury Quinn by Bobby Derie

Weird Tales Oct. 1925
Seabury Grandin Quinn got his start at Weird Tales with “The Phantom Farmhouse” and an article on Bluebeard, the first in a series of “Weird Crimes” in October 1923. The “Weird Crimes” ran through 1924, and in 1925 he began another article series “Servants of Satan,” regarding the Salem Witch Trials. In October 1925, Weird Tales would publish “The Horror on the Links”—the debut for what would become Quinn’s star character, Jules de Grandin. Over a run of 26 years, de Grandin would star in 93 episodes spread over 100 issues (including the six-part serial “The Devil’s Bride” and reprints), and have the cover 35 times; the character and the author were routinely voted favorites in “The Eyrie,” Weird Tales’ readers page.

Also in 1925, a new writer appeared in the Unique Magazine: Robert E.
Weird Tales July 1925
Howard’s “Spear and Fang” appeared in the July issue, which it shared with one of Quinn’s “Servants of Satan” articles; so did “In the Forest of Villefere” which appeared in the August Weird Tales. The two men never met, nor is there any record of their correspondence, yet it was impossible for them not to have noticed and formed an opinion of one another. Quinn, writing from Brooklyn, and Howard, writing from Cross Plains, were from that moment on in constant, if polite competition—for sales, for the cover spot, and for first place among the affections of Weird Tales readers. Yet Quinn would also, in many ways, be a formative influence on Howard. Lovecraft, who was one of the few to correspond with both men, compared them once:
It is, therefore, piquant & enjoyable to exchange ideas with Two-Gun or to read his stories. He is of about the same intelligence as Seabury Quinn—but Yuggoth, what a difference! (LRB 256-257)
Seabury Quinn was born in Washington, D.C. in 1889, attended Washington National University, and had graduated with a degree in law. He practiced law only for a short time, and joined the army for World War I. After his discharge he returned to practicing law and handled a libel case involving mortuary jurisprudence. He won the case, and they took him on as legal advisor—and so he got his start for The Casket, a trade journal for morticians. Quinn was given progressively more work with The Casket until he became its managing editor; and in 1921 Quinn married his first wife, Mary Helen Molster. In January 1925, The Casket merged with the mortuary journal Sunnyside, and Quinn became editor of the combined magazine The Casket & Sunnyside, which job necessitated moving to New York. (Schwartz & Weisinger 1-2, Ruber 336, Ruber & Wyrzos ix)

Seabury Quinn (1889-1969)
By this point Quinn was already writing the serial character Major Sturdevant, who first appeared in Weird Tales’ sister magazine Real Detective Tales in December 1924, and continued to appear in every issue of that pulp (under editor Edwin Baird) through 1926—and writing two series characters simultaneously (Sturdevant and de Grandin) would be a major challenge for any pulpster, much less one with a day job. Sturdevant’s “Washington Nights’ Entertainment” petered out after a “measly” 27 stories. De Grandin would have a much more substantial run, though a much more modest beginning, in Quinn’s own words:

One evening in the spring of 1925, I was in that state that every writer knows and dreads; a story was due my publisher, and there didn’t seem to be a plot in the world. Accordingly, with nothing particular in mind, I picked up my pen and literally making it up as I went along—wrote the first story [...] As with The Horror on the Links, so with all other adventures of de Grandin. (CA 1.xxi)

Quinn may have been fudging a little; the French occult detective with his more incredulous counterpart Dr. Samuel Trowbridge probably owes something to Agatha Christie and her Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot and companion Arthur Hastings, who first appeared in The Murder on the Links (1923), but both were patently working in the same mold as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Watson & Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Whatever the case, “The Horror on the Links” was quickly followed by “The Tenants of Broussac” (WT Dec 1925) and “The Isle of Missing Ships” (WT Feb 1926)...and a fan letter in “The Eyrie”:



Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Weird Tales Tourist, New Orleans: Robert E. Howard by Karen Joan Kohoutek

Visitors to New Orleans can find plenty of information on the sites associated with authors like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, and (that dude who wrote Confederacy of Dunces). Fewer people are aware of the city’s connections to the writers from the Weird Tales circle, but there are many, and easy enough to visit.

In 1919, Robert E. Howard’s father, Dr. Isaac Howard, attended seven weeks of medical training in New Orleans, bringing his wife and 13-year-old son (Finn 58). Howard wrote of his time there that “it was my fortune to be acquainted with some elderly maiden ladies by the name of Durell—gentlewomen of the old school living in semi-seclusion and striving to maintain the standards of a faded aristocracy, and reconcile their natures with the necessity which forced them to run a rooming-house” (A Means to Freedom 122).

New Orleans’ census records and property records steer us to “Durel” as the likely spelling. Howard scholar Rusty Burke has narrowed down Camille Durel as a good candidate for one of those gentlewomen, and at the time of the 1920 census (accessible through Ancestry.com), she was the “keeper” of a rooming-house at 1904 Canal Street, where she lived with her younger sisters Delphine and Marie. If this is the correct family, then at the time of Howard’s visit, Camille would have been 49, Delphine 39, and Marie 37: only “elderly” to young eyes.

This address would fall in what is now about a three-block span of a recently reconstructed medical complex.


Given Howard’s remembered familiarity with a family of sisters named Durel, and the fact that the medical schools associated with Tulane were in the same area, the rooming-house at 1904 Canal seems like a plausible contender for the site of their stay.

Just before the passage where he introduces the Durells (sic), though, Howard refers to “my French landlady” in New Orleans, who “hated the Italians.” It’s hard to know whether it’s a result of the letter’s conversational style, but it almost sounds like “my French landlady” and the “elderly maiden ladies” aren’t the same people. In that case, the Durels could also been neighbors, running a rooming-house similar to wherever the Howards lived.

In 1932, Howard facilitated a meeting between his correspondents H. P.Lovecraft, who was visiting the city, and fellow Weird Tales writer E. Hoffmann Price, currently living there. According to Lovecraft’s letters, Price lived in the French Quarter at the time, and an address list of Howard’s correspondents shows Price living at 305 Royal (Derie 47-48). The building's main floor is currently home to the Mann Gallery.


This section of Royal is full of art galleries, expensive antique shops, and upscale boutiques, but it’s likely that the rooms on the upper stories were once affordable enough for a pulp writer to rent.

Talking about the Durel sisters, Howard described “the old Durell (sic) mansion in the heart of the French Quarter – now the Latin Quarter – once a stately, century-old residence, built with characteristic French style – now a hovel housing half a dozen squalid Italian families” (MTF 122). Rusty Burke’s research, based on New Orleans city directories, suggests 301 Royal as the location.


I’d like to believe this is true, because 301 Royal is next door to Price’s lodgings. In this corner view, 301 Royal is on the left, with 305 just on the right.



Thursday, August 31, 2017

F. Thurston Torbett and F. Lee Baldwin on Robert E. Howard by Bobby Derie

Marlin, Texas in Falls County, lies about 160 miles from Cross Plains; the town hosted the Torbett Sanitorium, run by Dr. Frank M. Torbett, who lived there with his family. The small health resort catered to those who suffered tuberculosis, and over the years Robert E. Howard and his family would make the long journey by car several times so that his mother, Hester Jane Ervin Howard, could receive treatment, in stays that sometimes lasted for weeks. The earliest surviving letter from Robert in 1923 is addressed from Marlin (CL 1.3), and there were visits in 1931 (CL 2.195), 1935 (CL 3.388-391, 421) and early 1936 (CL 3.415, 425, 426).

Back cover ad: WT's story
by Torbett & Howard
Along the way, the Howards became friends with the Torbetts—a friendship evidenced by the personal letter that Dr. Howard sent to the Torbetts on the death of his wife and son in 1936 (IMH 51-52), and by the encouraging fan letter which Mrs. Torbett had written to Strange Tales asking for more of Howard’s stories, published in the January 1933 issue. The two young men, Robert E. Howard and Frank Thurston Torbett, were especially fast friends, and stayed in touch when Robert was out of town through letters—two of which from 1936 survive (CL 3.436-437, 464). Robert described Thurston in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

While in Marlin I had many enjoyable conversations with the son of the man who gave me the Coryell County history, a talented young man, with remarkable artistic ability. He is not only a portrait-painter of great ability but has considerable literary talent. He is a great admirer of your work, by the way. I think he could have been a success either as a painter or a writer, but, while attending an art school in California, he became interested in the occult, and now devotes practically all his time to this study. He is sincere in his devotion to it, but I regret his interest in it, since it has caused him to neglect his undoubted talents. I can not have any sympathy for this occult business. However, if that’s what he wants to do and enjoys doing, then I’m not one to criticize. (MF 2.907, CL 3.391)

Thurston would, like his mother, write letters to the editors of the pulp magazines to promote Bob’s work:

Dear Editor:
At last, in the June issue of STRANGE TALES, I found what I’ve been looking for in those pages for a long time—a story by Robert E. Howard. I enjoyed his People of the Dark very much.
            I have been following the work of this able writer for several years, and hope to see more of his work in the Clayton publications in the future. In my opinion he is one of the best writers of this type of fiction we have today.
            I might also add that I like all the stories in STRANGE TALES. They are all good. My only regret is that it is not a monthly publication.—F. T. Torbett, Box 265, Marlin, TX
(Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror Jan 1933)

T. Torbett, of Marlin, Texas, writes: "I've just read with appreciation the February issue of WT. As far as I am concerned, a story each month by C. L. Moore and Robert E. Howard would constitute a complete issue. Howard's Hour of the Dragon is superb and so was Moore's Yvala. Moore's The Dark Land in the January number I also found to be of excellent literary quality and I liked the author's accompanying illustration. I might also add that I like Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith, Paul Ernst, Frank Owen and most all authors who contribute to WT. (Weird Tales Apr 1936)

C.L. Moore
Thurston’s promotion of Catherine L. Moore alongside Robert is likely due to the fact that the two were in correspondence; as evidenced by the fact that it was Torbett who first informed Moore of the death of Robert E. Howard. (IMH 52) However, the Thurston Torbett’s strongest tie with Howard occurred after his friend’s death.

F. T. Torbett writes from Marlin, Texas: "I want to add my voice to those who are requesting reprints of Robert E. Howard's early stories. I am asking this solely because of the merit of Howard's stories and not because he was for some years one of the best friends I ever had. His was a powerful personality, of a type that can never be forgotten. I never knew a man more devoted to home and family, or more loyal to his friends, or more honest and upright. I miss his companionship more than I can say. I am sure that the future of WEIRD TALES will be a bright one, for the quality of the stories is steadily improving."
(Weird Tales May 1938)

“A Thunder of Trumpets” by Robert E. Howard and Thurston Torbett appeared in the September 1938 issue of Weird Tales—the advertisement in the preceding issue declared:



Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Kid, Two-Gun, and History by Todd B. Vick*

Few American lives have elicited more tales, rumors, and folklores than that of Henry McCarty. I would go so far as to say that of all the famous Americans who have lived such a short life span—two meager decades—McCarty has the most amount of words written about him. He perhaps has also influenced more authors than any other old west figure. And despite all this, he remains one of the most elusive figures of the old west. So who is Henry McCarty? History knows him as one Billy the Kid. The foremost scholar of Billy the Kid, Frederick Nolan, claims “Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid.” (Nolan 3). Evidence for this lies in the fact that The Kid did not receive serious scholarly attention until nearly 100 years after his death. 

            Why is that? What makes Billy the Kid so fascinating that for the better part of the 20th century his life has resisted serious research and remained in the mainstream arena of folklore and myth? No scholar of the Kid seems to have a definitive answer to that question. It might simply be that facts are not as exciting as the mysterious. Regardless, from the late 1950s to the present day reliable research, scholarly articles and books have been written and new historical documents uncovered. Granted, the mythos remains and makes for wonderful movies and exciting novels but we now live in what should be considered a more enlightened era with regard to our understanding of The Kid.
            There was a long period of time where scarcely a word was written or spoken about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars. This span occurred between the death of the infamous sheriff (Pat Garrett) who killed Billy the Kid in 1908 until 1925 when Harvey Fergusson raised the question in an American Mercury article, “Who remembers Billy the Kid?” Apparently, the Kid’s reputation had faded and Fergusson wondered why (Nolan 295). All this would soon change in 1926 when Walter Noble Burns published The Saga of Billy the Kid, and the Kid would once again be thrust into the limelight of folklore and myth. This was the very book that sparked interest in the mind of a young boy who would later become the premier scholar of Billy the Kid studies, Frederick Nolan. Moreover, Walter Noble Burns, with his flamboyant style and highly exaggerated account of Billy the Kid, would also influence a series of western writers of the early to mid twentieth century. One in particular was a popular pulp fiction writer from Cross Plains, Texas named Robert E. Howard. Although the focus of Howard’s writing had pretty much been the fantasy and action adventure genres, Burn’s book would ultimately set Howard in a new creative direction.
It is no secret to Robert E. Howard aficionados that Howard had a serious interest in the Old West. This interest became so predominant toward the latter years of his life he shifted his writing career in the direction of publishing western stories and even proclaimed in correspondence to August Derleth:
“I’m seriously contemplating devoting all my time and efforts to western writing, abandoning all other forms of work entirely; the older I get the more my thoughts and interests are drawn back over the trails of the past; so much has been written, but there is so much that should be written.” (Howard Letters 2:  372).

In studies about Robert E. Howard’s western writing career there is no definitive time frame or specific cause that pushed Howard in the direction of western tales. Howard had written westerns in his earlier years and sporadically throughout his fantasy and action adventure years, but what made him tell Derleth that he wanted to devote all his time to western writing? There was likely no single factor or date, rather a series of events that hinged upon at least one thing—Walter Noble Burn’s book The Saga of Billy the Kid.
Walter Noble Burns was born October 24th, 1872. As a teenager he became a junior reporter for the Louisville, KY Evening Post. (Nolan 295). This led Burns into a fairly long career as a writer and reporter which eventually led him to Chicago where he would work for both the Chicago Examiner and Chicago Tribune. It was his work with the Tribune that would launch him into his most famous research and work. In 1923 Burns would visit New Mexico to interview  various people who were still alive during the Lincoln County Wars and the days of Billy the Kid. This research would ultimately end up in Burns’ book The Saga of Billy the Kid (from here on referred to as SBK).
SBK was the definitive book about Billy the Kid’s life until the late 1950s and early 1960s when scholars took pen in hand and began seriously researching the Lincoln County Wars. Today SBK is considered nothing but a novel work on the Lincoln County Wars. It has all but been dismissed as exaggerations, myths, and fun folklore. Regardless, from 1926, the year SBK was published, to the early 1960s, Burns’ work set the tone for movies, western pulp stories, dime novels, and even magazine articles about Billy the Kid.
When SBK was published it quickly became a national best seller, rivaling the sales of other popular books of its day. In just a few short months Nolan explains,


Sunday, August 13, 2017

A 2017 Howard Days Highlight: Gaming

The Monolith Conan Game
On the Howard House
front porch
As mentioned in an earlier post, I've been attending Howard Days since 2012, and what I have noticed each year is there is always one or two things over the weekend that stand out from everything else. One of this year's highlights was the RPG and Board gaming in the Cross Plains public library and on Robert E. Howard's front porch.

This was not the first year Howard Days hosted gaming. A few years ago, the RPG game launched on Kickstarter by Modiphius, was playtested by a group of gamers in Robert E. Howard's dining room. This very RPG game, now a successful Kickstarter campaign was once again played by a group of gamers in the Cross Plains Public Library.

There was an acting Dungeon Master (DM) for the gamers, and from what I've been told, I did not witness the gaming in the library, it was quite eventful. A smaller faction of the Cross Plains Library RPG gaming group relocated to the front porch of the Howard House. This small group set up the new, highly successful Kickstarter board game, called Conan, created by Monolith Board Games LLC. Having participated in this Kickstarter campaign, I spent a good portion of that game watching the inner workings and witnessing it at play.

Howard House front
porch gaming
This game's Overlord (who functions similar to a DM) was Wesley, from Wyoming. Game players included Wesley's wife Elizabeth, Chris, James, and Danny. The group selected a pre-provided scenario, characters, and then simply followed the rules of the game. This was the first time I had seen this game actually being played live. And though it is slightly complicated, once the participants got involved and began understanding the rules, the game slowly picked up and became increasingly more interesting. I am certainly glad I was able to witness this game play, especially since I own the game.

But here's the kicker, while the Monolith Conan game was being played on Robert E. Howard's front porch, the game play was being filmed for YouTube by Robert E. Howard's great nephew, Jim Howard! A nice added feature, to say the least.

I was told by several of the gamers that they wanted to make this an annual affair at Howard Days. I think that is a wonderful idea, and I certainly hope to see more gaming at subsequent Howard Days.