Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Mirror of E’ch-Pi-El: Robert E. Howard in the Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (Part 3) by Bobby Derie

If Lovecraft balanced praise and criticism for Howard’s stories in his letters, and claimed a certain formulaic quality or a preference for adventure over weird atmosphere, he also had considerable praise for Howard’s characters, particularly the King Kull stories which “probably forms a weird peak” (SL5.278); indeed, later on he would claim they constituted “REH’s best weird tales.” (LRBO 360) At times, Lovecraft would discuss Howard’s characters at some length, showing how the knowledge of Howard’s life and interests from his letters influenced Lovecraft’s interpretation of his fiction:

About good old Two-Gun Bob’s characters—odd as it may sound, I doubt whether Conan was, in spirit & intent, a typical pulp hero. He resembled such externally, but actually I fancy he was a type or projection of the sort of lawless rover REH himself longed to be. There was more of sincere & ardent wish-fulfillment than of conventional copying in the mighty Cimmerian—& that is why he always seemed to me more alive than the jointed marionettes of Hamilton & all the other hacks. Solomon Kane reflected another side of Two-Gun—the brooding ethical sense which made him furious over injustices & oppressions. How he used to storm over the maltreatment of prisoners by policemen, the high-handed outrages of absentee oil corporations in Texas, & latterly the absorption of Abyssinia by Italy! But after all, the human characters are the least part of weird fiction. REH had a strange atmospheric power which manifested itself in more subtleties of description than even he himself realized, & which leaves in the reader’s mind a menacing, mist-wreathed image of Cyclopean walls in the jungle, smothered in unwholesome vines, & hiding hellish secrets older than mankind. (LHK 25)

Not to mention some of the realities of trying to get a cover design at Weird Tales:

About the Conan tales—I don’t know that they contain any more sex than is necessary in a delineation of the life of a lusty bygone age. Good old Two-Gun didn’t seem to me to overstress eroticism nearly as much as other cash-seeking pulpists—even if he did now & then feel in duty bound to play up to a Brundage cover-design. (LRBO 382)

Lovecraft’s most vehement defense of Howard and his fiction was in response to a young Robert Bloch, who in the “Eyrie” of the November 1934 Weird Tales had praised his fiction while attacking series characters like Conan; prompting Lovecraft’s rebuttal:

Young Robert Bloch at Typewriter
I haven’t had time to read the present issue of W T, but noticed your provocative epistle in the Eyrie. I fear you are just a bit too hard on our distinguished massacre specialist, since some of his stuff has a really distinguished poignancy. Who else can so well convey an idea of unholy antiquity in primal cyclopean ruins? And can anyone deny a certain touch of genuine poetic vision in “The Queen of the Black Coast?” What is more—of all the repeatedly-used stock characters of the WT bunch—Jules de Grandin & so on—it is certain that Conan, hate him as you will, has the most aesthetic justification. He is the least wooden & artificial of all—that is, he reflects more of his creator’s actual feelings & psychology than any other. De Grandin is merely a puppet moulded according to cheap popular demand—he represents nothing of Quinn. But in the moods & reactions & habits of Conan we can clearly trace the sincere emotions & aspirations & perspectives of Howard. De Grandin always acts as a synthetic marionette, but Conan often acts as a living & distinctive human being. Of course, the artistry of Howard is only partial. he is not thoroughly trained, & he writes frankly for a popular pulp audience. Much about Conan is indeed mechanical & absurd—but beyond all that there is a certain genuineness & spontaneousness which can’t be denied or argued away. However—it is to be remarked that a character of this type is probably out of place in weird as distinguished from adventure fiction—that is, the constant exploitation of such a type is out of place. I can agree with you that the placing of supreme emphasis on the head-cracking & gore-spattering activities of a primitive nomad scarcely contributes much to the weird effect of the scenes through which he hews his way. Howard ought to separate his two gifts—his command of dark, brooding effects, & his sympathetic understanding of the barbarian mind—into separate groups of stories; contributing the one to WT & its congeners, & the other to magazines of the Adventure class. Of course, he does write a great deal of wholly non-weird stuff for things like Action Stories, Fight Stories, &c. He has a prize-fighter character called Steve Costigan who seems to be quite a rival of Conan in his virile affections. Actually, as a creator of vigorously self-expressive & more or less sincere & spontaneous fiction of a certain sort, Howard undeniably stands higher than such absolutely [text erased] puppet-showmen & herd-caterers as Edmond Hamilton, Quinn, Kline, & the latter-day Price. Dividing the WT group into sheep & goats, we can’t avoid placing REH in the upper tier along with Smith, Moore, the old-time Price, & the late Whitehead. (LRBO 119)

The distinction of Howard among the “upper tier” at Weird Tales was typical of Lovecraft, a reflection of both Howard’s ability and their prodigious correspondence and mutual admiration. (cf. LHK 19) Lovecraft had a tendency to characterize Howard as “much superior to his work” (ES1.283), a kind of “noble savage” of the pulp frontier who set out for a life of hackwork but achieved a higher standard in spite of himself:

Yes—Robert E. Howard is a notable author—more powerful & spontaneous than even he himself realised. He tends to get away from weirdness toward sheer sanguinary adventure, but there is still no one equal to him in describing haunted cyclopean ruins in an African or Hyperborean jungle. He has written reams of powerful poetry, also—most of which is still unpublished. (LRBO 205)

Many of Robert E. Howard’s letters were punctuated by poetry, and like their fellow correspondents Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, Lovecraft and Howard both held poetry in high regard and produced considerable amounts of verse, though neither ever considered themselves primarily a poet, and most of Howard’s fans and correspondents would have been familiar with his poetry only through that published occasionally in Weird Tales or The Fantasy Fan, or through the snippets of song included in his fiction, such as the epigraph to “The Pool of the Black One” and The Road of Kings quoted in the Conan tales.

Weird Tales ca Oct. 1933
Lovecraft’s praise for Howard’s poetry in his letters to others was high, calling REH “A poet of savagely great power” (SL5.108) and “phenomenally gifted” (SL5.278), and his poetry “Some of it really marvelous in its savage, barbaric potency.” As with the idea of Howard developing into a regional author, Lovecraft suggested to his correspondents that Howard “really ought to be able to have verse in the remunerative magazines right along” (LRS 48) and “I always hoped to see a collection of his verse” (SL5.279)—a dream eventually realized by Donald Wandrei and August Derleth of Arkham House, with the production of Always Comes Evening.

Lovecraft also lent out pictures of them that his friends had sent him. Photos Robert E. Howard made the round to Robert Bloch (LRBO 46), Richard F. Searight (LRS 48), Willis Conover (LRBO 389), R. H. Barlow (OFF 78), and Bernard Austin Dwyer (MTS 379). The photo lent to Dwyer in particular was one of the last photos taken during Howard’s life, after he had grown a moustache:

Two-Gun sent me a new snapshot of himself last month. He’s grown a drooping moustache, & in a 10-gallon hat looks exactly like a western cinema sheriff. (ES2.732)

Dwyer reportedly lost the snapshot (“If he can’t find it, I shall positively never lend the cuss another damn thing!” OFF 352), and Howard later shaved the mustache. However, a small photo of REH reproduced in Marginalia by Arkham House matches Lovecraft’s description of the photo, so perhaps Dwyer found it.

General news on his correspondents often filled the gaps in Lovecraft’s letters, and while he kept much of Howard’s personal business confidential, certain events were deemed worthy of mention. One that has attained a certain legend is the meeting of E. Hoffmann Price and H. P. Lovecraft in New Orleans in 1932:

[...] it happened that during my sojourn I wrote to Robert E. Howard of Texas—who, noting the hotel address on my stationery & being in epistolary touch with Price, took it upon himself to telegraph Price of my presence & whereabouts. (SL4.87, cf. ES2.487)

And later that same year, when Howard sent Lovecraft a set of rattlesnake rattles and an accompanying poem (“With A Set of Rattlesnake Rattles”):

Just got a fine set of rattlesnake rattles from Robert E. Howard. His letter accompanying them is a veritable prose-poem with the unconquerable serpent as its theme. I’ll shew it to you. (MTS 314, cf. ES2.613; LAG 193-194; LRBO 79-80; SL5.278)

Other events of note include Howard also later sent Lovecraft the preserved carcass of a venomous spider (OFF 150), and Howard’s mother surviving a serious operation (OFF 282). On occasion these snippets would include brief mention of Howard’s travels in Texas (SL4.25) and New Mexico (LRBO 225), including the Carlsbad Caverns (OFF 150)—and, in one sanguine incident, a journey that ended very abruptly:

Robert E. Howard had a bad motor accident Dec. 29—cut & crushed badly enough to kill an ordinary man. But he’s all right now—nothing can permanently down the iron physique of Conan the Reaver! (LRBO 101)

The most famous journey involving REH he made note of in his letters is in 1934, when E. Hoffmann Price and his wife stopped by Cross Plains on their way to Mexico. (OFF 110, 130-131; LRBO 102, 104; LRS 48) Lovecraft reported to R. H. Barlow: “Just got a postal from Price & Howard. They appear to be painting Cross Plains red!” (OFF 132) The visit went off so well that Price stopped by again in 1935 while on another cross-country jaunt. (ES2.712; LA1.45; LRBO 159, 321; OFF 300, 315)
E. Hoffmann Price

Price was the only pulpster from Weird Tales that Howard ever met, as he reminded several correspondents (ES2.636-637) and Lovecraft held this personal connection to REH important enough that he later deferred to Price when it came time to write an obituary for Howard in Weird Tales.

P.S. Just heard of the suicide of Robert E. Howard. It seems incredible—I had a long normal letter from him written May 14. He was worried about his mother’s health, but outside of that seemed quite all right. This is a blow indeed—he was the most vital & spontaneous of all the group! (LHK 20)

It seems incredible—I had a long normal letter from him dated May 13. He was worried about his mother’s health, but otherwise seemed quite all right. If the news is indeed true, it forms weird fiction’s worst blow since the passing of Whitehead in 1932. No other writer of the group had quite the zest & spontaneity of good old R.E.H. [...] Just had word from Two-Gun’s father. Sad report all too true. REH shot himself when he learned that his mother’s illness was fatal. Double funeral. The shock to poor old Dr. Howard must be unbearable—wife & splendid only child gone at one blow. REH’s melancholy streak must have run deeper than we thought—for most can take the loss of the elder generation more philosophically. It certainly is cruelly tragic all around. (LRBO 172)

Robert E. Howard committed suicide at his home 11 June 1936, followed shortly thereafter by his mother. His father, Dr. Isaac M. Howard, went about the dreary business of arranging the double funeral, and spreading the news of Howard’s death to his friends and correspondents. Lovecraft received the news vis a card from C. L. Moore on June 16 (SL5.271), and later received confirmation and further details from Dr. Howard, with whom he established a brief correspondence. For his part, Lovecraft spread the word of Howard’s death to his circle, with published letters for Henry Kuttner (LHK 20), Robert Bloch (LRBO 172), Wilson Shepherd (LRBO 354), E. Hoffmann Price (SL5.271-272, 275-279), Kenneth Sterling (LRBO 278-280), August Derleth (ES2.737), Donald Wandrei (MTS 378-379), Farnsworth Wright (LA8.42-44; LE 23; UL 16), Donald Wollheim (LRBO 334), and R. H. Barlow, who had already heard the news (OFF 349-350).

The portion of these letters of Lovecraft are unusual in that they are for a large part identical. Starting off fairly briefly, the sections grew considerably as additional letters were written (presumably as Lovecraft thought of more things to say), and while each letter is unique, with the news of REH’s death at or near the end of an existing letter, the language is almost identical, and the dates of many of the letters set so close together in time that it is clear that Lovecraft was spreading the word quite rapidly. The shortest version of Lovecraft’s mortuary announcement runs only a couple paragraphs, while the longest runs several pages, and is essentially a recap of the entire life of Robert E. Howard as Lovecraft knew it (with a few errors) up to and including the events of his death (with details given by Dr. Howard), thoughts on their correspondence, REH’s philosophy and fiction, and comments on Howard’s latest fiction in Weird Tales, which included the conclusion of “The Hour of the Dragon” that had been running for most of 1936 and “Black Canaan.” Indeed, Lovecraft expressed in those letters as much or more about Robert E. Howard than he had in all his other correspondence.

Part of this “common letter” reappeared in Lovecraft’s “In Memoriam: Robert E. Howard” in the September 1936 Fantasy Magazine, but perhaps the best part of it reads:

Mitra, what a man! It is hard to describe precisely what made his stories stand out so—but the real secret is that he was in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. (SL5.272)

Howard’s death did not mark his last appearance in Lovecraft’s letters. As his close friend and correspondent, Lovecraft found himself involved in writing obituaries and memorials for fanzines and Weird Tales (Farnsworth Wright excerpted part of Lovecraft’s letter for the October issue), offered some corrections to R. H. Barlow’s elegiac sonnet “R. E. H” (OFF 349-350, 351, 352; ES2.740; LRBO 337), and sought to arrange copies of Howard’s The Hyborian Age and Lovecraft’s The Shunned House for the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection (LRBO 334, 338-339; OFF 352-353; MTS 384).

Many of Lovecraft’s letters following his mortuary message include replies sharing further reminiscences, thoughts, and recollections (sometimes with considerable overlap with the longer versions for those that had only received the shorter version). Likewise, Lovecraft continued to comment on Howard’s posthumous publications in Weird Tales and The Phantagraph, where “The Hyborian Age” was being serialised; and Farnsworth Wright had lent Lovecraft “A Probably Outline of Conan’s Career” by P. Schuyler Miller and Dr. John D. Clark. (LRBO 341-342, 382-383; LHK 23)

Lovecraft was even briefly consulted by Wilson Shepherd of the Phantagraph with the possibility of putting out a cloth-bound collection of Howard’s fiction. While Lovecraft had very little experience with printing, he was quite wary of such ventures after his failures with The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Shunned House, and his advice seems to reflect both his desire for a proper volume to memorialize REH and that it be able to be carried out to fruition:

A book of Conan stories would certainly be a very welcome item, & I hope such a thing can be published some day. It ought, I think, to be a pretty large & inclusive thing—& might form quite a problem to a publisher with limited equipment. It seems to me that for an immediate volume a collection of Howard’s best stories—irrespective of their membership in the Conan cycle—would be the wisest venture. REH’s best weird tales, without question, were the short “King Kull’ series—though perhaps some of the Conans & Solomon Kanes, plus the recent “Black Canaan”, fall into that category. Certain Howard enthusiasts ought to be consulted about the contents of such a book—Price being especially well qualified to pick selections. Financing would be a rather hard problem (I’m utterly broke!), but a large number of small subscriptions secured through advertisements in the fan magazines might help. Your scale of estimated prices is very helpful in forming an idea of the problem—as is the set of paper & cover samples. A 100-page volume ought not to be impracticable in the end—& might conceivably hold all the “King Kull” tales. Art work can sometimes be secured quite reasonably—Utpatel having done four drawings for my “Innsmouth” for only $15.00. A sketch or line drawing of REH would make a good frontispiece—& as a model I’d suggest one of the 1931 snapshots (I could lend a small print). These are more typical, I think, that the stouter, moustached snaps of REH’s last days. But all these points could be discussed by the editorial board—pictures, title, scope, size, selections, &c. I’d suggest your getting in touch with Price on the subject, & also with REH’s father. (LRBO 359-360)

While Lovecraft discussed possible details of the project, the scale and costs of the project still seemed prohibitory. (LRBO 362, 364) After consulting E. Hoffmann Price and considering Lovecraft’s cautionary advice, Shepherd’s project of a volume of Howard’s fiction apparently petered out, with Lovecraft commenting in December 1936:

Price spoke about his opinion regarding the Howard book, & I think he is right in the end. As I suggested in the first place, it would be really unwise to launch such a volume (which would naturally be regarded as a sort of memorial to REH) unless there were an assurance of sufficient cash to make it of ample size, & of accurate & artistic typography, workmanship, & binding. The plan is distinctly worth keeping in mind, but the time is not yet ripe for action on it. (LRBO 365, cf. 367, 370)

Lovecraft’s final letter, unfinished at the time of his death, includes three references to his late friend Weird Tales (“The Fire of Asshurbanipal” and “Dig Me No Grave,” respectively), and a note of high praise on the manuscript for Adept’s Gambit by his young correspondent Fritz Leiber:

Fritz Leiber
Robert E. Howard, who had died only nine months before—brief comments on REH’s posthumous stories in the December 1936 and February 1937

It is a very brilliant piece of fantastic imagination—with suggestions of Cabell, Beckford, Dunsany, and even Two-Gun Bob—and ought to see publication some day. (LJFM 402; SL5.433)

In a period when there was so little hard information available about Robert E. Howard, the version of REH that is reflected in Lovecraft’s letters was, for many of his correspondents, the only version that they would know of outside of Howard’s published fiction and poetry. “Two-Gun Bob,” the Howard of Lovecraft’s letters is something of a caricature of the actual man, his tastes and philosophies simplified and altered as it passes through the lens of Lovecraft’s own understanding, and includes some of Lovecraft’s own misconceptions or misremembered facts about his life. If the correspondence of H. P. Lovecraft gave a distorted vision of R. E. Howard, it was not a malefic one. Throughout the letters shines Lovecraft’s admiration, respect, and affection both for Howard and for his fiction, even his non-weird fiction. It is clear that Lovecraft was deeply affected both by their six-year correspondence, and by his friend’s death, and that he continued to think of him even as he lay dying. If there is yet any doubt about the effect Howard had on Lovecraft’s life, these last few words may erase it:

Later on, when literary activities brought me into touch with widely diverse types by mail—Texans like Robert E. Howard, men in Australia, New Zealand, &c., Westerners, Southerners, Canadians, people in old England, & assorted kinds of folk nearer at hand—I found myself opened up to dozens of points of view which would otherwise never have occurred to me. My understanding & sympathies were enlarged, & many of my social, political, & economic views were modified as a consequence of increased knowledge. Only correspondence could have effected this broadening; for it would have been impossible to have visited all the regions & met all the various types involved, while books can never talk back or discuss. (SL4.389)

Works Cited

AMTF        A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols.)
CL             Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda)
ES             Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (2 vols.)
LA              Lovecraft Annual (9 vols.)
LAG           Letters to Alfred Galpin
LE              H. P. Lovecraft in “The Eyrie”
LET           Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw
LJFM         Letters to James F. Morton
LHK           Letters to Henry Kuttner
LRBO        Letters to Robert Bloch and Others
LRS           Letters to Richard F. Searight
MTS          Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei
OFF           O Fortunate Floridian: H. P. Lovecraft’s Letters to R. H. Barlow
SL              Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols.)
SLCAS      Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith
SR             Sable Revery
UL             H. P. Lovecraft: Uncollected Letters
WD      Fritz Leiber and H. P. Lovecraft: Writers of the Dark


David said...

Many thanks for this series, Bobby and Todd. It has been interesting and revealing. In particular, the regard that HPL had for REH causes me to better understand the complexity of HPL's personality, and helps me read certain remarks he made to REH more sympathetically.
-David Piske

Scott Sheaffer said...

Very well done. It's great to see David Piske's comment above. This series and the series David did about Howard and Lovecraft's civilization vs barbarism debate compliment each other very well.