Sunday, December 9, 2018

Conan and E’ch-Pi-El: Robert E. Howard in the Biographies of H. P. Lovecraft by Bobby Derie

It is fair to say that the study of the life and art of Robert E. Howard owes a debt to the study of H. P. Lovecraft. The six-year friendship of the two pulpsters represents a substantial exchange of letters for both men, the moreso for Howard as his letters to Lovecraft constitute the bulk of his surviving correspondence; they influenced each other’s work, most notably in the shared setting of the Cthulhu Mythos; and they had many friends and associates in common, including Farnsworth Wright, E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith, Henry S. Whitehead, Wilfred Blanch Talman, C. L. Moore, and August Derleth.

Howardiana was published alongside Lovecraftiana in fanzines like The Acolyte and The Ghost, and Arkham House, founded to publish the works of Lovecraft, put out two collections of Howard’s fiction and poetry: Skull-Face and Others (1946), Always Comes Evening (1957) and The Dark Man and Others (1963). Arkham House would also publish parts of Lovecraft’s letters to Howard in the Selected Letters (1965-1976), which some years later would inspire the publication of the Selected Letters of Robert E. Howard (1989/1991, Necronomicon Press). The “Howard boom” in the 1960s also coincided with a surge in interest in Lovecraft’s fiction.

For all of their association, however, Robert E. Howard was almost nonexistent in the early biographies and memoirs about H. P. Lovecraft. Most of the Lovecraft’s autobiographies predate their correspondence; F. Lee Baldwin’s “H. P. Lovecraft: A Biographical Sketch” (Fantasy Magazine Apr 1935) lists Howard as one of Lovecraft’ many correspondents; W. Paul Cook makes no mention in “In Memoriam: H. P. Lovecraft” (1941), nor Winfield Townley Scott in “His Own Finest Creation: H. P. Lovecraft” (1944); Howard appears in August Derleth’s H. P. L.: A Memoir (1945) only as one of Lovecraft’s correspondents (Derleth 61), the creation of Unaussprechlichen Kulten and von Junzt (Derleth 72), and part of a lengthy quote from one of Lovecraft’s letters:

Our distinguished fellow weirdist Two-Gun Bob has succumbed to this fashion to the extent of hashing up his own middle name (Ervin—distinguished in Southern history for 200 years) and signing himself ‘Robert Eiarbihan Howard.’ (Derleth 54)

The lack of reference to Howard in memoirs of Lovecraft is understandable, most were written by friends who had never met or corresponded with Howard, and possibly never heard of him. Those who did not already know of the Lovecraft-Howard connection would learn little of it from the Lovecraft side of things, and that would focus strongly on Howard’s contributions to the shared Mythos—Lin Carter’s focus in Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos (1972).

1975 was a seminal year in Lovecraft studies, with the publication of L. Sprague de Camp’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography, Frank Belknap Long’s Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Night Side, and Willis Conover’s Lovecraft at Last. These three books published more biographical material on Lovecraft than had been readily available in any half-a-dozen Arkham House volumes—and at the same time opened a window on his relationship with, and comparisons to, Robert E. Howard. In the preface, de Camp wrote:

I learned about Lovecraft little by little. I also learned about other members of the Lovecraft-Weird Tales circle, especially Robert E. Howard. While I enjoyed Lovecraft’s fiction, Howard’s stories came closer to the kind of swashbuckling adventure-fantasy that I most enjoy reading and writing. Later, I became involved in completing, rewriting, and editing a number of Howard’s unpublished tales; but that is another story. (de Camp xi)

De Camp had been associated with the science fiction fan scene and a pulpster since the 1940s; in the 1950s he became associated with the Robert E. Howard properties, re-writing stories in the Gnome Press volumes The Coming of Conan (1953), King Conan (1953), Tales of Conan (1955), and co-authoring The Return of Conan (1957) with Björn Nyberg. In 1966, de Camp and Lin Carter began editing and writing the Conan series in paperback from Lancer, the beginning of the Howard Boom of the ‘60s. Robert E. Howard ‘zine Amra (1959) was already a focal point for Howard Studies, and de Camp’s articles from Amra were reprinted by Mirage Press in The Conan Reader (1968); de Camp and George Scrithers went on to edit two further collections of Howard-related articles by de Camp and others: The Conan Swordbook (1969) and The Conan Grimoire (1972). This familiarity with Robert E. Howard is a significant part of what de Camp brought to his approach to Lovecraft.

De Camp gave the standard note Howard was one of Lovecraft’s correspondents (de Camp 114, 301, 376), even paraphrasing notes from Howard’s letters to Lovecraft:


[...] Lovecraft’s treatise on “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Lovecraft thought of expanding the work to book length, as his pen pal Robert E. Howard urged, but never did so. (de Camp 284)

I have read and reread your article with the utmost interest. You handle the subject in a clean-cut and highly intelligent manner, and certainly no one in the present literary world is more capable of dealing with that subject. I certainly wish you would enlarge this article into book form. (CL 2.88)

H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography touches on most of the crucial points in Lovecraft’s life, including Robert E. Howard’s arrangement for Lovecraft to meet E. Hoffmann Price in New Orleans in 1932 (de Camp 358-359), Howard’s role in “The Battle That Ended The Century” (de Camp 394), and “The Challenge from Beyond” (de Camp 408). However, de Camp also provided a two-page biography of the Texas pulpster (de Camp 318-319), followed by another page discussing Lovecraft’s brief involvement with the publication of “The Hyborian Age” essay (de Camp 320), and about a page and a half dedicated to Robert E. Howard’s suicide and its effect on Lovecraft (de Camp 418-420, 435), including quoting a few lines of one of his poems, “The Tempter” (de Camp 419). De Camp also drew comparison between the two pulpsters:

“Randolph Carter,” who reappears in several later stories, is a fictional idealization of Lovecraft himself, much as Conan the Cimmerian, the gigantic prehistoric barbarian adventurer, is an idealization of his creator, Robert E. Howard. (de Camp 145)

In poetry, Lovecraft (who rightly called himself “essentially a prose writer”) was far surpassed by Robert E. Howard [...] (de Camp 317)

Howard comes off better in these arguments than Lovecraft. He seems far to surpass Lovecraft in warmth, breadth, balance, worldly wisdom, and common sense. His fatal weakness transpired only later. (de Camp 319)

Despite Lovecraft’s criticism, there is much to be said for Howard’s nomenclature. Whereas Howard’s made-up names are unpleasing, those borrowed from ancient sources convey the glamour of antiquity without being too difficult for the modern reader, who, having been taught to read by sight-reading methods, boggle at any name more exoic than “Smith.” (de Camp 320)

He also made many asides to Howard in Lovecraft’s biography, though de Camp would not express some of these ideas fully until years later when Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (1983) was published. For example, de Camp wrote:

Of the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales—Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard—Smith was the only one on whose normal male sexuality nobody ever cast any doubt. (de Camp 173)

Frail and bullied as a boy, he built himself up by heroic exercise into a two-hundred-pound mass of muscle, becoming an accomplished boxer and rider and a sport fanatic. He had a withdrawn, irascible father and (like Lovecraft) a monster-mother—an over-loving, possessive woman who discouraged his normal interest in girls. (de Camp 318)

De Camp did not neglect the shared elements of the Mythos which Howard and Lovecraft contributed to, mentioning in brief Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten (and Lovecraft’s part in the naming of that book), Bran Mak Morn, Kathulos (though the latter is a bit out of place), and Valusia. (de Camp 332, 397)

H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography is dedicated to “The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales: Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.”—and there can be little doubt that in writing the book, de Camp was approaching Lovecraft as a writer grounded in an understanding of Howard, however flawed that understanding may have been. While the material on Howard in the book is relatively slim in terms of pagecount, it is nevertheless substantially more on the Texan than had been published in all previous Lovecraft biographical materials combined—and because de Camp’s biography would persist as the standard work on the subject for many years, despite its inaccuracies and post mortem efforts at psychoanalysis, it likely had an impact on how many readers read and understood Robert E. Howard.

The other two books released in 1975 also included references to Robert E. Howard as one of Lovecraft’s correspondents (Long 170), and then a rather longer passage on Long’s combined impression of Howard and Long’s impression of Lovecraft’s impression of Howard, expressed as a quasi-dialogue. (Long 174-177) Frank Belknap Long never corresponded with Howard directly, but developed a picture of the Texan through Lovecraft’s letters, and the portrayal of Howard probably more to Howard’s posthumous reputation. In at least a few particulars it appears that Long was following de Camp’s lead, for example when he wrote:
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 [...] 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. [...] But he remains, I feel, predominantly a writer for boys. (Long 175)
One thing that Long touched on that de Camp did not was Howard’s non-weird fiction:
Remember, he wrote many sport stories, western tales, straight adventure yarns. 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. (Long 176-177)

Dreamer on the Nightside is ultimately something of a disappointment; as a memoir it is personal and lengthy, but there is little that is particularly revelatory, much speculation and meandering, and many omissions—probably honest ones. It presents a more intimate view of Lovecraft than de Camp’s biography, but the Howard episode is only one odd part of a rather hastily-written book.

Willis Conover’s Lovecraft at Last is a different story; a tribute to Lovecraft rather than a straight biography, using Lovecraft’s own words from his letters whenever possible. Conover began his correspondence with Lovecraft in July 1936, shortly after Howard’s suicide, so almost from the beginning the Texan is front and center:
E. Hoffmann Price has it in mind to write a set of reminiscences of the late Robert E. Howard (who shot himself June 11 on learning that his mother was about to die. Price is the only one of us who ever met REH in person.), & wants to put it in the “best” of the fan magazines, whichever that is. (Conover 19)
Conover replied “a set of reminiscences of the late Robert E. Howard would be most acceptable.” (Conover 25)—and the book goes on from there. Unlike Long and de Camp, Conover makes zero effort to interpret Robert E. Howard, who crops up naturally whenever Lovecraft would bring the Texan up in his letters. This was closer to the approach of the Selected Letters than anything else, albeit with the benefit of focusing on a single line of correspondence (with a few additions), and part of Conover’s side of the conversation and reactions to provide narrative to the epistles. For example, in one exchange:
[“W]hether I can ever manage to make ten dollars per week regularly through revision and stories, I’m sure I don’t know. If I can’t, there’s always Robert E. Howard’s solution awaiting when the end of my resources is reached.[“] [...] The revelation of HPL’s was appalling. His allusion to Robert E. Howard’s suicide completely shocked me. I couldn’t have guessed that his situation was so precarious: it was inconceivable that H. P. Lovecraft should be living at the edge of poverty. (Conover 100)
The impression of Howard from Lovecraft at Last is Lovecraft’s own—derived from direct correspondence and tremendous respect for his departed friend. Readers who picked up all three books would, with Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, have their own time trying to sort through the different impressions of Howard and Lovecraft’s friendship...but they established the basis for future scholarship, including the founding of Lovecraft Studies (1980).

Following the publication of the first full biography of Lovecraft came a few slimmer publications, notably: The Dream-Quest of H. P. Lovecraft (1978) by Darrell Schweitzer and H. P. Lovecraft: Starmont Reader’s Guide 13 (1982) by S. T. Joshi. Both were efforts to succinctly summarize the key elements of Lovecraft’s life, with a focus on his fiction: Schweitzer leaves Robert E. Howard largely on the cutting room floor. In his defense he almost immediately wrote Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard (1978), where he takes the opportunity to compare and contrast Lovecraft and Howard, and in both books Schweitzer equivalates Howard’s “Hyborian Age” with Lovecraft’s “Mythos.”

S. T. Joshi’s inaugural biographical effort is more robust: a full twenty pages longer than Dream-Quest, with endnotes, bibliography, a timeline of Lovecraft’s life noting the beginning of his correspondence with Robert E. Howard, and an index. Still, references to Howard are pared down to the minimum, focusing almost exclusively on those elements which Lovecraft borrowed or referred to in his fiction, such as Bran Mak Morn and Unaussprechlichen Kulten. However, Joshi was just getting started.

Joshi would return to Lovecraft in a series of biographies: H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996), A Dreamer and a Visionary: H.P. Lovecraft in His Time (2001), and I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2010) are all essentially the same book, only progressively uncut and expanded. Unlike most previous writers on the subject, Joshi drew on the Howard-Lovecraft correspondence as a source for the events of Lovecraft’s life, and addresses their friendship at greater depth and more rigorously than de Camp. In A Dreamer and a Visionary, Joshi notes “A joint Lovecraft-Howard correspondence would be very illuminating.” (Joshi 2001, 1976)—at the time, all that was available were the five-volume set of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters and the slim two-volume chapbooks of Howard’s Selected Letters; Joshi would go on to co-edit A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2009) with Rusty Burke and David E. Schultz.

I Am Providence, as the most complete version of Joshi’s biography, is also the most revealing in his portrayal of Robert E. Howard. Joshi makes no effort to disguise his overall assessment:
Like Lovecraft, he has attracted a fanatical cadre of supporters who both claim significant literary status for at least some of his work and take great offence at those who do not acknowledge its merits. My own opinion, however, is that, although individual stories are exceptional (but none equal to the best of Lovecraft’s), the bulk of Howard’s work is simply above-average pulp writing. (IAP 2.800)
One does not, of course, wish to deny all literary value to Howard’s work. He is certainly to be credited with the founding of the subgenre of “sword-and-sorcery,” although Fritz Leiber would later vastly refine the form; and, although many of Howard’s stories were written purely for the sake of cash, his own views do emerge clearly from them. The simple fact is, however, that these views are not of any great substance or profundity and that Howard’s style is on the whole crude, slipshod, and unwieldy. Several of Howard’s tales are, in addition, appallingly racist—more barefacedly so than anything Lovecraft ever wrote. Howard’s letters, as Lovecraft rightly maintained, deserve to be classed as literature far more than does his fiction. (IAP 2.801) 
While readers may not all agree with Joshi on Howard, it is inarguable that Joshi has produced the most thorough biography of Lovecraft yet—and he did so in part by carefully integrating material related to Robert E. Howard. The value of their correspondence to Joshi’s work is clear not only in describing specific events such a Lovecraft’s meeting with E. Hoffmann Price in New Orleans (IAP 2.828-829), but as part of Joshi’s overall description of the evolution of Lovecraft’s political and philosophical views:
Lovecraft’s debate with Robert E. Howard on the relative merits of civilisation and barbarism clarifies his political concerns while a the same time linking them with his general metaphysic and ethics. The debate was an offshoot of a number of polarities discussed by these two very different individuals—the physical vs. the intellectual, the frontier vs. the city, and the like. Neither man’s position is as simple as these dichotomies suggest, and I don’t think it is possible to assert (as many Howard supporters have done) that the debate—which became quite testy at times and even led to a certain hostility and resentment, although each always claimed to respect the other’s position—was somehow “won” by Howard. (IAP 2.905)
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There is an undercurrent in these passages that suggests Joshi may be less critical of Howard than of his fanbase...but the image of the Texan himself is at least of a slightly more complex individual than presented by previous Lovecraft biographers, and one where something of Lovecraft and Howard’s own words are used to express their positions.

S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz would actually follow that idea in another remarkable book: Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters (2000). The book is literally Lovecraft’s life in his own words, culled from the chunks of biographical data embedded in his letters and carefully curated to present a timeline of his life. While few letters appear to have been chosen specifically to address Robert E. Howard, Joshi & Schultz did include Lovecraft’s letter to E. Hoffmann Price reacting to the Texan’s suicide.

As with the publication of H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography, the publication of Joshi’s biographies of Lovecraft and Lord of a Visible World encouraged a certain number of follow-ups, largely aimed for the scholastic or pop-biography markets, or sometimes more obscure audiences. Errors in presenting the facts of Robert E. Howard’s life in earlier books could be understood by a paucity of sources in print; Dark Valley Destiny was the only full biography available until Mark Finn’s Blood & Thunder: The Life and Times of Robert E. Howard (2006), and the Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard were not published until 2007-2008, A Means to Freedom in 2009. After 2010, however, there seems little excuse not to make use of these resources...but not everyone did.

H. P. Lovecraft Master of Weird Fiction (2002) by William Schoell relies primarily on de Camp’s biography and Lord of a Visible World, a slim effort similar to Joshi and Schweitzer’s original works, reducing Robert E. Howard down to little more than a footnote:

Lovecraft liked and admired Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, even though he felt he was only of average intelligence. Howard “is original and distinctive in thought and expression,” he noted. His nickname for Howard was “Two-Gun,” and he was saddened to hear of Howard’s suicide in 1936. Lovecraft had contemplated suicide several times throughout his lifetime, but it always seemed to be others around him who finally took that irrevocable step. (Schoell 104)

The Dream World of H. P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe (2010) by Donald Tyson is a biography in name only. Released as part of Tyson’s Necronomicon series for Llewellyn Publications, The Dream World is patently a magical biography, striving to present Lovecraft as an occultist, damn the facts. Drawing primarily on de Camp and Joshi’s A Dreamer and a Visionary for biographical information on Lovecraft, the total Robert E. Howard content, both biographical and literary, is about five pages (Tyson 155-160, 235). An example of Tyson’s scholarship and interpretation comes in discussing Howard’s story “The Children of the Night”:

Howard’s conception is similar to Lovecraft’s Very Old Folk, a hill-dwelling tribe in Spain, the last remnant of an ancient and evil race that practices degenerate rites of worship to forgotten gods on May Eve and Halloween. The complex dream in which Lovecraft saw this race begs to be interpreted as an astral vision of a past life—but Lovecraft stoutly refused to interpret any of his dreams in this manner. Even though Lovecraft never published this dream-tory, it circulated by letter among his correspondents before being incorporated into a novel by Frank Belknap Long, and may perhaps have supplied inspirations, either directly or indirectly, for Howard’s ancient and evil Children of the Night. (Tyson 158-159)

Long’s “The Horror from the Hills,” incorporating the dream-fragment from Lovecraft, was serialized in Weird Tales in the Jan and Feb/Mar 1931 issues; Robert E. Howard’s “The Children of the Night” was sold to Weird Tales c.Oct 1930 (CL 2.105) and published in the Apr/May 1931 issue. While Lovecraft’s letters to Howard may well have helped inspire the story, the publication dates alone should have suggested that the timing was unlikely for Long’s serial to inspire Howard’s story.

S. T. Joshi made an attempt at a shorter, more accessible Lovecraft biography with H. P. Lovecraft Nightmare Countries (2012): an oversize, lavishly illustrated and slickly produced coffee table book. Economy of words (the book is 158 pages compared to I Am Providence’s 1,148) reduce Robert E. Howard to a minimum, little more than the beginning of his correspondence with Lovecraft and the shock of his suicide.

The Curious Case of H. P. Lovecraft (2014) by Paul Roland is a pop-biography that reads very much like an abridgement of A Dreamer and a Visionary with the addition of a focus on the pop-culture afterlife of Lovecraft and his creations, with a dash of occultism and a suggestion Lovecraft might have had Asperger’s syndrome thrown in for good measure. While Roland does not cite his sources throughout the book, the bibliography lists de Camp, I Am Providence, Lord of a Visible World, and Tyson. Robert E. Howard is mentioned as one of Lovecraft’s correspondents, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and the Sword & Sorcery genre; his suicide is not mentioned. (Roland 97, 124, 152)

H. P. Lovecraft The Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness (2015) by Charlotte Montague is another lavishly illustrated, glossy-page production similar to Nightmare Countries, only a bit busier and designed to fit on a shelf. Montague’s style is much more compartmentalized, page blocked off into small chunks of information, quick to read but offering a bit of depth. Robert E. Howard’s name pops up periodically, and he gets his own dedicated page—albiet with one of two errors:
He finally sold a story about a caveman - ‘Spear and Fang’ to Weird Tales for $16 and shortly after, another, ‘The Hyena’, was also accepted. He dropped out of high school to become a professional writer, and was a regular contributor to Weird Tales. (Montague 129)
Howard did not drop out of high school, but other than little things like that the brief biography is fairly accurate. The brief space allowed does not really discuss Lovecraft’s and Howard’s interactions, the effects of their correspondence on both men, or even Lovecraft’s reaction to his friend’s suicide.

In the Mountains of Madness The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft (2016) by W. Scott Poole is another effort along the lines of Paul Roland’s The Curious Case of H. P. Lovecraft, although focusing on the pop-culture legacy of Lovecraft and his mythos instead of the occult. While there are some endnotes and it is clear Poole did a considerable amount of research for the book, which makes his often bizarre misinterpretations and misrepresentations of historical figures all the more jarring. Poole devotes the better part of six pages to Robert E. Howard and his creations (Poole 223-229), not counting scattered references throughout the book. At one point, Poole discusses the final Conan serial, “Red Nails”:

I read this story many years ago, but had the chance to read it again more recently with a group of scholars interested in horror and the uncanny. The gathering included an interesting cross-section of backgrounds and expertise with knowledge of everything from medical history to the history of the pulps to Russian literature to a grasp of the theoretical discussions of gender and sexuality. They had little interest or admiration for Howard. Who can really blame them [...] (Poole 225)

While de Camp or Joshi might not laud Howard’s fiction, Poole obviously has zero interest in a nuanced reading of the Texan’s work. Joshi at least finds merit in the Lovecraft-Howard correspondence, but Poole:

I first dove into this correspondence expecting the letters making their way back and forth between Providence, Rhode Island and Cross Plains, Texas to brim with insights on the making of modern American popular culture. Here we had the doyen of horror and an original master of magical wizards and sword-wielding heroes writing one another letters of enormous length. I found myself sorely disappointed. [...] Unfortunately, most of their letters are unrelievedly boring.
(Poole 226-227)

Part of Poole’s antipathy to his subjects (Lovecraft and Howard in this case) is due to their racial prejudice, but even so he occasionally makes considerable leaps in logic:

The pair never became close enough friends for Lovecraft to share anything like personal detail. Howard apparently never knew that his correspondent had been married to a Jewish woman of Ukrainian descent just two years before their regular correspondence began. It’s simply not a fact that fit with the image Lovecraft wanted to present to his fellow Weird Tales writer. (Poole 227)

Obviously, Lovecraft and Howard were never obligated to reveal personal information to one another—and both men chose not to share certain details of their lives. Robert E. Howard rarely mentioned his girlfriend, Novalyne Price, or the nature of his mother’s illness; H. P. Lovecraft never mentioned his aunt’s mastectomy or his marriage—not just to Howard, but to most of his correspondents. The two did share considerable thoughts and feelings with one another, enough so that Howard asked Lovecraft to keep their letters confidential. (CL 2.512) Possibly Poole missed that during his reading. He certainly missed Howard’s dislike for the Nazis when he wrote:

It’s hard not to see in his most well-known creation a kind of Death’s Head SS commando in a loincloth, treading the jeweled kingdoms of the earth beneath his jackboots. (Poole 229)

There have been few efforts to render Lovecraft’s life as a comic book or graphic novel. The first of any substance is George Kuchar’s “H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography” (Arcade The Comics Revue #3, Fall 1975); the three pages, apparently inspired by de Camp’s biography, include a single panel with Robert E. Howard—possibly one of the earliest comic book depictions of the Texan—as one of Lovecraft’s Weird Tales correspondents. Most of those that followed were fictional treatments incorporating some elements of Lovecraft’s biography, a graphic parallel to faux-biographical novels like Lovecraft’s Book (1985) or The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004).

The most substantial nonfiction graphic novel biography is Sam Gafford and Jason C. Eckhardt’s H. P. Lovecraft: Some Notes on a Nonentity (2017). Both writer and artist did their research: Gafford presents the facts of Lovecraft’s life, borrowing lines directly from Lovecraft’s letters and the memoirs of his friends, and Eckhardt clearly worked from photographs of historical persons and place, including Robert E. Howard. The Texan doesn’t appear on the page often, but the few appearances are accurate and in character, and include a full page for his suicide and aftermath.

The same cannot be said of H. P. Lovecraft He Who Wrote in the Darkness (2018) by Alex Nikolavitch, Gervasio, Carlos Aón, Lara Lee & Blue Lotu Prod. Originally published in French and translated into English, the creators attempted a similar objective as Gafford & Eckhardt, using Lovecraft’s letters to put his own words into his mouth, but something got badly garbled along the way, as is very evident when looking at Robert E. Howard’s place in the graphic novel. Part of this might be due to limited access to Lovecraft’s letters in other languages or translating them back into English. Others are simply...odd omissions.

In the graphic novel, Lovecraft meets E. Hoffmann Price in 1932, but without the assistance of Howard; Lovecraft gets a letter from Howard, and he has to explain who he is to Price—despite the fact that in 1932 both Price and Lovecraft were in correspondence with Howard—Lovecraft hears about the suicide of Robert E. Howard from a phone call rather than a postcard. It’s an enjoyable read, and obviously some pains were taken over it, but these are the kinds of odd details that stick out more in a graphic novel than a short biography.

That shorter biographies of Lovecraft have correspondingly less material about Robert E. Howard is not a flaw—every author has to decide what the most important information is and adjust their wordcount with respect to that. At the end of the book Howard was only one of Lovecraft’s many correspondents, one that popped up relatively late in the Providence gentleman’s life, however important he became in later years. So not having the same page count devoted to Howard as H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography or I Am Providence is not a scholarly sin—but the information that is in a biography should at least be accurate. While Poole’s bizarre misreading is an outlier, and Gafford & Joshi strive for accuracy, it does appear to be symptomatic of a wider problem: many Lovecraft biographers don’t appear to be researching Robert E. Howard, and their depictions are skewed and inaccurate as a result.

It is difficult to say what effect this has had on the popular and scholarly interpretation of Howard over the decades. How much of Howard’s characterization in fiction and media is based on the relatively sparse and sometimes biased handiwork of Lovecraft biographers? De Camp’s biographies of Lovecraft and Howard, despite being generally superseded, are still being used as reference material alongside or in place of newer and more accurate works. While many efforts have been and are being made to ensure the publication of Howard’s letters, the accurate texts of his fiction, better biographies so that fans and scholars have access to the best information available—that still leaves one question:

How do we get Lovecraft biographers to read it?



Abbreviations

CL       Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
IAP      I Am Providence: The Life And Times of H. P. Lovecraft

Other Works Cited

de Camp, L. Sprague (1996). H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Conover, Willis (2002). Lovecraft at Last. New York: Cooper Square Press.
Derleth, August (1945). H. P. L.: A Memoir. New York: Ben Abramson.
Joshi, S. T. (2001). A Dreamer and a Visionary: H. P. Lovecraft in His Time. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Long, Frank Belknap Long (1975). Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.
Montague, Charlotte (2015). H. P. Lovecraft: The Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books.
Roland, Paul (2012). The Curious Case of H. P. Lovecraft. London: Plexus Publishing.
Schoell, William (2002). H. P. Lovecraft Master of Weird Fiction. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing.
Tyson, Donald (2010). The Dream World of H. P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.


3 comments:

James Schmidt said...

Great article, thanks!

Unknown said...

Good article. Lots of good overviews of books I'll never read. (Not so much interested in HPL alas.) I am curious what Alan Moore has said of REH and HPL. I read the Providence comic but nothing else by Moore.

Bobby Dee said...

Not much; Robert E. Howard features in a couple panels near the end of Providence as a correspondent of Lovecraft, and that's about it. Most of the story is set in 1919 long before they started exchanging letters or the 2000s long after they were both dead.