Sunday, April 30, 2017

Friend of a Friend: Robert E. Howard and Frank Belknap Long, Part Two by Bobby Derie

Belknap & Lovecraft 1931
Frank Belknap Long was also dragged into one of Howard and Lovecraft’s long-ranging arguments on mental vs. physical, civilization vs. barbarism. Lovecraft, though arguing for the superiority of mental exertion over physical, was not unsympathetic to Howard’s view on the general agree ability of physical ability; the Rhode Islander wrote to the Texan:
In recognizing this condition, I am quite on your side—as against utter despisers of physical stamina and combat like Frank B. Long and others of the younger generation. (MF1.421)
In a subsequent letter, Lovecraft clarified:
So I stand half-way betwixt Long and yourself—insisting on the one hand that the glorification of the physical ought to be subordinated to the glorification of the mental, but on the other and insisting that the loss of a certain standard of physical prowess and combative interest means effeminacy and decadence. [...] Some years ago Long and I attempted to explore the Fulton Fish Market section of New York—which is full of quaint scenes and buildings. Ordinarily I have about 50 times the vigour and endurance of young Belknap—but for once he had grandpa at a disadvantage. (MF2.524-525)
Howard responded:
You mention my position as being at the other extreme from—I believe it was Long you mentioned. [...] Putting Long at one end of the rope, and me at the other, of course, you know Long, but in justice to myself, I must assure you that you are wrong about my position at the other extremity. (CL3.19, 27, MF2.535, 541)
This dispute, like others, was broken up at intervals by other, friendlier subjects such as Lovecraft relaying his Christmas 1932 visit with the Longs and his old New York literary circle (MF2.256), which Howard evinced polite interest in (CL3.30, MF2.544). Yet they did return to it once again, Lovecraft clarifying:
In contrasting you and Long I meant only to convey that your respective positions represent extremes within the very narrow circle of my active correspondents. Of course, I realize very keenly that extremes exist in both directions, which far transcend our position on the one hand and Long's on the other. [...] and nobody I know of (except Long, who thought it just a bit juvenile for a man of his high development in superior lines) ever criticised him for that satisfaction. (MF2.553, 555)
One wonders if Lovecraft showed Long these particular letters, or considered the impression that the Rhode Islander was building of his New Yorker friend when he wrote things like:
And our fellow-weirdest Frank Belknap Long Jr. is forced to leave the table in haste when blood or slaughter is too vividly brought into the conversation. [...] As to the varying degrees of sensitiveness at the sight or mention of blood—of course, actual fainting represents a pathological extreme .... as does also, perhaps, Long's acute nausea. (MF2.726, 790)
 In a letter dated 24 July 1933, Lovecraft wrote to Howard:
Speaking of literary insincerity and repulsive hack work—Long has just sold a wretched "confession" tale to the equally wretched Macfadden outfit for $100.00. He isn't signing his own name, though the company insist on his giving them his full name and address for filing. It gives him a nauseated feeling to reflect that his name is even secretly connected with such a piece of abysmal tripe—but he wants the cash badly! (MF2.630)
Otis Adelbert Kline

It is unclear which story that Lovecraft refers to, though it seems unlikely Howard would have held the sale against Long; aside from understanding the need for cash, both pulpsters had sold stories to Macfadden’s Ghost Stories, and Howard himself attempted a confessional at one point. The move might have been suggested by Otis Adelbert Kline, who was Robert E. Howard’s agent from 1933 (CL3.82n53), and Long’s from around 1934 (ES2.661); Kline listed both Howard and Long as prominent clients in a sales brochure (OAK #5, 12), but a list of stories sold by Otto Binder in 1936 only notes payment for the Gernsback account—Hugo Gernsback being notorious for non-payment. (OAK #5, 18)

Perhaps more significant to the Texan than Long’s markets was Long’s politics:
I hope you enjoyed your trip to see Long in New York. I learn with interest that Long is now a Communist. But I suspected it when I read his story in Weird Tales some months ago—the one about the dictator and the ape. (CL3.292, MF2.830)
The story in question was “The Beast-Helper” (WT Aug 1934). Averse to the physical, nauseous at the mention of wholesome carnage, and a Communist sympathizer to boot! Lovecraft’s image of Long in his letters to Howard really did hold him up as something of the mirror to the Texan, at least from Lovecraft’s viewpoint… and Lovecraft held the two up as opposites in his letters to others, for example to August Derleth:
I can’t understand the tragedy, for although REH had a moody side expressed in his resentment against civilisation (the basis of our perennial & voluminous epistolary controversy) I always thought that this was a more or less impersonal sentiment—like Sonny Belknap’s rage against the injustices of a capitalistic world. He himself seemed to me pretty well adjusted to his environment. (ES2.737)
And E. Hoffmann Price:
Indeed, I used [Howard] as a sort of model and example in arguing with persons like Long and Wandrei, who uphold a more disillusioned and decadent tradition I told him how often I held him and his position up to extremists on the other side, so that he undoubtedly realised the depth and sincerity of my respect, even when I tore most vigorously into his pro-barbarian arguments. (SL5.276)
The contrast which Lovecraft noted, and perhaps exacerbated in his letters, was nowhere better illustrated than in Howard and Long’s first-and-last literary run-in:
I was highly honored to be asked to contribute to "The Challenge From Beyond" yarn, along with you, Miss Moore, Merritt, and Long. (CL3.392, MF2.908)
Julius Schwartz
“The Challenge From Beyond” was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz, a round-robin featuring the consecutive talents of C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long for the third anniversary issue of Fantasy Magazine (Sep 1935). Long was initially scheduled to write the second section, but Merritt balked at Long’s piece, so the order was re-shuffled. (HPLE 37-38) Most of the attention to the story is given to the transition from Lovecraft to Howard—the ultimate contrast of their particular styles, as Lovecraft concludes his segment with a scholarly professor’s mind having been transported into the body of an alien worm, and Howard picking up his section with the idea that this needn’t be so bad, and a determination by the professor to bloody conquest of the other worms—yet there is just as much conquest, and unquiet rebuttal, to Long’s concluding segment, which emphasizes the quiet triumph of the mental over the physical. Howard’s opinion on this section is not recorded in any surviving letter, but Lovecraft voiced his assessment:
Two-Gun immediately transformed the scholarly & mild-mannered professor into a raging & sanguinary Conan, while Belknap aired his pet theory concerning man’s profound innate savagery. (LFLB 306)
It amused me to see how quickly Two-Gun made a rip-roaring sanguinary Conan out of the mild & scholarly George Campbell, & how Sonny worked in his romantic illusion that all human beings are repressed savages! All the boys true to form! (MTS 372)
Otto Binder, who was working as the New York assistant to Howard and Long’s agent Otis Adelbert Kline, wrote a letter to his boss dated 27 June 1936:
Just last night, as chance would have it, I heard from Frank Long, Jr. of the suicide of Howard. He had got it from Donald Wandrei, who had received a letter from Lovecraft. (OAK #5, 16-17)
Lovecraft’s letter to Wandrei announcing Howard’s death was posted 24 June 1936 (MTS 378-379), and since Wandrei, Long, and Binder were all in New York at the time, it makes sense that word would spread quickly. Several decades later, Long gave a different, somewhat fictionalized version in his Autobiographical Memoir, where he recalled that Kline had called to make a dental appointment with Long’s father, and added: “Bob Howard is dead. He killed himself. And he sent me a new story less than five weeks ago.” (AM 24) Perhaps Kline did say something like that...later, after he had moved to New York in the fall of 1936; or perhaps Long’s memory simply confused events.

Long’s memories of Howard, and his assessment of him, are fairly few and unpolished; he once even managed to misspell his name as Robert W. Howard—perhaps confusing him with Robert W. Lowndes. (EL xxv) Yet Long wrote at least one longer piece on Howard as he knew him: through his letters with H. P. Lovecraft. In Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Night Side (1975), Long recast the back-and-forth of their correspondence as a conversation between Lovecraft and himself, with Howard as the subject.
FBL: Bob Howard seems to have felt much the same way about Texas as you do about Providence. There is no evidence in any of the very long letters he wrote to you that he was at odds with his environment. But Texas was quite different from Rhode Island. Doesn’t it seem a little strange that a writer of imaginative fiction in the domain of fantasy could have been so completely at home in perhaps the most rugged environment in America? He seems to have had a very pronounced “lonely dreamer” side to his nature. He was extremely sensitive to poetic nuances, even if that sensitivity never enabled him even to approach, on a serious literary level, what Clark Ashton Smith achieved in his poems and stories.
HPL: It wasn’t in the least strange. He was “Two-Gun Bob” in most of his stories, a sturdy adventurer who could identify with Conan so completely that it’s difficult to think of them as separate individuals. The background of the Conan stories may have been mythical, but it was very like Texas in its major features. A rude, somewhat primitive early world antedating the pyramids, barbaric and colorful and imaginatively splendid in its total lack of literary artifice. (DNS 174-175)
Long is borrowing as much from Howard’s letters as from Lovecraft’s, but most of the words he puts in the Rhode Islander’s mouth echo things he had written about Howard elsewhere. For example, in a letter to James F. Morton, Lovecraft wrote:
Nobody else in the gang had quite the driving zest & spontaneity of Two-Gun. It is hard to say just what made his stories stand out so, but the real secret is that he was in every one of them himself. (LJFM 389-390)
Compare that with Long when he writes:
FBL: To me “Two-Gun Bob” has always seemed far from an important writer, except perhaps in one rather unusual respect. He had all of the tremendous zest, of adventurous delight in fictional encounters on the heroic level that we associate with the novels of Jack London. But he remains, I feel, predominantly a writer for boys. And he died too young to have become as accomplished as London in that particular realm. He might have surpassed London as a craftsman if he had gone on, however, and fulfilled his youthful promise. Do you agree with that appraisal?
HPL: To a considerable extent, I do. But, as you’ve just pointed out, he could weave the kind of magical spell that Jack London would have been incapable of weaving—the kind of spell that proves, beyond any possibility of doubt, that he had something in common with both Smith and Dunsany. There are dream pinnacles in the Conan stories that re remote from the kind of novels that made Jack London famous. There is no mingling of the immediate and the elusively dreamlike, the mythical and the fabulous in The Sea Wolf or The Call of the Wild. (I could not ask HPL what he thought of the school of “Sword & Sorcery” writing in general, which Bob Howard had undoubtedly been among the first to make popular, because the term had not been coined before 1937. August Derleth wrote me, in one of his last letters, that he felt that Fritz Leiber excelled all other living authors in that particular genre.) (DNS 175-176)
Robert E. Howard
Long’s appraisal of Howard as “a writer for boys” perhaps owed more to contemporary assessments of his fiction—1970 had seen the success of the Conan the Barbarian comic book, and the famous Lancer reprinting the adventures of Conan (as well as the work of L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Björn Nyberg) in cheap paperback form helped fuel the Sword & Sorcery boom of the ‘70s, even if the re-working of Howard’s tales by Carter and de Camp did little for Howard’s literary reputation. This seems to be the meaning Long was going for based on his next comments:
FBL: Naturally Bob Howard and Jack London did not always deal with the same kind of fictional material. And pure fantasy was not London’s forte at all, although The Iron Heel is a kind up utopian fantasy not so different from Bellamy’s Looking Backward, apart from its socialistic orientation. But I was thinking of something a little different. London was the kind of writer who could instill in his readers a lively awareness of what it means to be very young, eager and strong and confident, and hell-bent for “red-blooded adventure.” That’s a trite, rather silly term, but it pretty well covers it. And Bob Howard was like that too, in a way. Remember, he wrote many sport stories, western tales, straight adventure yearns. He was even, in some respects, what today would be called a “gut” writer. Not an adult, realistic gut writer exactly, but the kind that appeals to youth. (I almost said, “that accounts, in a large measure, for his tremendous popularity among the young today,” quite forgetting that “today” would have meant 1937 for HPL at the latest.) What I’m really trying to say is that he was the kind of writer who might well have been remembered for all of the qualities which made Jack London famous. London’s fame has dwindled but he remains far from forgotten today, and Bob Howard might well have surpassed him as a writer of adventure fiction par excellence.
HPL: Yes, I’ve no quarrel with you as to that. But his passing at so early an age was a tragedy that has been many times repeated. One has to be grateful for what he did accomplish.
FBL: [...] That’s what I meant when I compared Bob Howard to London—they both had the same kind of gusto—an unspoiled kind of something that you don’t find in too many writers. (DNS 176-177)
The degree to which Long’s assessment is based on the difference in temperament between the two men, and the later critical opinion of L. Sprague de Camp is difficult to assess. Certainly, in the introduction to The Return of Skull-Face (1977), Long seems to be strongly influenced by the latter when he writes:
But de Camp’s categorization still remains valid—Howard, along with CAS and HPL was undoubtedly, one of the three most outstanding of Weird Tales’ early contributors. (RSF 7)
August Derleth
If the two did not always see eye-to-eye on every issue, if they were held up as different extremes for Lovecraft to play against in his letters, Long did at the last at least acknowledge Howard’s talent when he considered the serial “Skull-Face” he had read so long ago in the pages of Weird Tales:
August Derleth once told me that outside of The Outsider—play on words unintentional!—no early Arkham House volume had brought quite as much reader acclaim as Skull-Face
To me this has always seemed readily understandable, for having once met Skull-Face, few readers would be likely to forget him. Neither is it at all surprising, as Richard Lupoff has perceptively pointed out, that Robert E. Howard has become one of the most most popular writers in the world today.
The original Skull-Face was swashbuckling from beginning to end, with an aura of the Gothic hovering over it. [...] But there is narrative magic here—make no mistake about it, for the creator of Conan had numerous strings to his bow and every arrow that came from that bow was shafted with magic. (RSF 8)
Long’s final encounter with the posthumous Robert E. Howard was in another round-robin: “Ghor, Kin-Slayer,” which began life as a fragment by Howard, and which was “continued” in the late 1970s by a myriad of prominent writers of the weird. Long’s bit was chapter XII, “The Gift of Lycanthropy” (Fantasy Crossroads #15, Jan 1979)—the longest of the chapters, and one which blended together the Hyborian Age setting of Conan the Barbarian and the Cthulhu Mythos, with a focus on Long’s own contribution, the Hounds of Tindalos. It is perhaps fitting that in this final meeting Long gives up the pretense of savagery vs. civilization, and strove to continue a tale—not as Howard would have written it, but in the spirit of sword & sorcery.

Works Cited

AM       Autobiographical Memoir (1985, Necronomicon Press)
CL       The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda,     Robert E. Howard Foundation Press)
DNS    Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Night Side (1975, Arkham       House)
EL        The Early Long (1975, Doubleday & co.)
ES       Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (2       vols., 2008, Hippocampus Press)
HPLE   The H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (2001, Hippocampus Press)
LFLB   Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. RImel, and Nils From (2016,      Hippocampus Press)
LJFM   Letters to James F. Morton (2011, Hippocampus Press)
MF       A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E.  Howard (2 vols., 2nd ed., Hippocampus Press)
MTS    Mysteries of Time & Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald  Wandrei (2002, Night Shade Books)
OAK    OAK Leaves: The Official Journal of Otis Adelbert Kline and his works  (1980-1982)
RSF     The Return of Skull-Face (FAX)
SL        Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols., Arkham House)

Part One

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