Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Last Line of the Last Letter by Todd B. Vick



For decades, fans have speculated about the writing/publishing direction Robert E. Howard would have taken had he not died on June 11, 1936. Questions such as what genres would he have ventured into? Would he have continued writing Conan stories? Would he have published more westerns? Some have decried these questions and their answers as vain attempts or pure speculation. But are they? I think there is enough evidence available to formulate a solid idea as to which publishing direction Howard was headed, and would have likely remained on for a spell, when he died, at least in terms of the first few years after his death: from 1936 to 1940. How is this possible, you might ask? My answer is based predominantly on three publishing trends Howard went through in the 12 years he was actively publishing his written material. And, a fourth, impending publishing period he was headed toward at the time of his death. Let me try explain what I mean.

Over the twelve years Howard published stories, various patterns can be detected during these years. Not patterns of style, though they may be there as well, but in terms of content and genres in which he wrote. In simplistic terms, Howard’s twelve-year publishing career (from 1924 to 1936) can be divided into three periods lasting about four years each. Based on several years of looking at Howard’s published work from a birds-eye view (or holistic perspective), in my estimation this is how I have charted his career. Initially, there is an amateur (juvenile) period lasting from 1919 to 1923 (also a four-year period). I have not included this period in the chart below, but it could easily be placed before the three periods represented and aptly called his “amateur or juvenile period.” This period is a smattering of both humorous and serious history, mystery, and the like. 


From 1924, when “Spear and Fang” is written and submitted to Weird Tales, to 1928, is a period I call Howard’s "discovery period" (or early fiction). Howard experiments with several genres like horror, history, and fantasy. Additionally, it is during this period that Howard begins to experiment with his adventure influences (e.g. Rafael Sabatini, H. Rider Haggard, et. al) using some of those elements in his stories. He also nails down his prose pace, which is arguably the strongest aspect of his fiction. In this first period Howard uses a smattering of historical (and mythological) elements to begin to create some interesting (albeit young-ish in style and prose) stories. Because of this, Howard is directed into the second period of publication, what I call his historical fiction period, from 1928 to 1932. This period clearly shows Howard using aspects of the history he has researched up to these years. Howard also begins to mix genres (e.g. adventure with horror) during this period.

Between the first period (early fiction) and the second period (historical fiction), Howard creates two characters (Solomon Kane and Kull) who overlap these two periods to generate what is to come in his third period of publication: what I call the adventure fantasy period. From 1932 (with the publication of Conan) to 1936, Howard’s primary attention is on adventure fantasy. During this period, Howard is developing the Hyborian Age and giving the reading public Conan the Cimmerian, his most popular character.

Throughout these three periods, beginning with the latter part of the first period up to the early part of the third period, Howard published his boxing stories as a separate entity (or genre, if you will) altogether. What I mean by this is that his boxing stories do not neatly fall into any of the three categories as primary works reflecting those categories. There are elements from each of those periods present in his boxing stories, but they stand alone as an individual genre overlapping the periods. A very simple chart/table of these periods would look something like this:

1924—1928
1928—1932
1932—1936
Early Fiction
Historical Fiction
Adventure Fantasy
Smattering of genres, some historical
Primarily historical, some fantasy
Primarily Fantasy, some western
(From the latter part of the first period to the early part of the third period — boxing fiction)

NB: This idea (and above chart) is a general, broad sweep of Howard’s writing career. A much more specific account could be created, examining specific stories and genres with explanations as to why they fit into each of these periods. Perhaps something to consider for a future article. Let us just say, these three periods stand out over Howard’s twelve-year publishing career, and as presented should be sufficient, along with other evidence presented a little later, to demonstrate Howard’s fictional direction at the time of his death. It should also be pointed out that once Howard moved away from a character (e.g. Solomon Kane, Kull, etc.) to begin a new character or genre trend, he did not returned to that character.

 Now, with regard to what has been typically dismissed as speculation about the writing/publishing direction Howard was headed at the time of his death, using Howard’s letters, his published fiction, and Novalyne Price Ellis’ book One Who Walked Alone, I think a fourth period, which was developing by June of 1936, can be determined.

As mentioned above, regarding the third period of Howard’s publishing career (the adventure fantasy period), Conan was the dominant character around which Howard build some of his most popular stories. But what was Howard saying about Conan in the last year or so of his life? By December of 1935, Howard confessed to Lovecraft, “The last yarn I sold to Weird Tales—and it well may be the last fantasy I’ll ever write—was a three-part Conan serial which was the bloodiest and most sexy weird story I ever wrote.” (CL 3.393) Aside from possibly Novalyne Price, Lovecraft is the first person to whom Howard admits he is moving away from adventure fantasy (and from Conan). Moreover, Howard has spent several years discussing the Texas and western frontier. These discussions have likely fueled his desire to write more about that topic.

By the Spring of 1936, Howard’s writing slowed due to the care he was giving his mother. However, by this time, he had stopped writing adventure fantasy altogether and was writing and publishing predominantly westerns. His focus was on Breckenridge Elkins, Buckner J. Grimes, and Pike Bearfield. Even so, months before this season, while he was still working on Conan stories, Howard admitted to Novalyne Price that he wanted to write a story (perhaps a novel) about the Texas frontier. (OWWA 223, 227) Because Conan was Howard’s bread and butter character, He and Price discuss Conan and the barbarian versus civilization issue fairly regularly (or at least Howard frequently brings it up in their conversations). On several occasion, Price mentions that Howard told her he was ready to stop writing Conan stories and focus his attention on westerns or his Texas frontier novel. And she had agreed with that idea and expressed hope that he would. (OWWA 223, 226-227)

 Howard’s western output had increased in the months prior to his death. He had also corresponded with Jack Byrne at Munsey Publication about a new humorous character in the same vein as Breckenridge Elkins. Howard explained to Byrne, “I have in mind a new character, Pike Bearfield, of Wolf Mountain, Texas, about as big, dumb, and ludicrous as B. Elkins.” (CL 3.435) All the while, Howard continued to write a few El Borak stories, and several new horror stories, but his main focus was on westerns. In fact, the last line (aside from the farewell line) in the last extant letter Howard wrote to H. P. Lovecraft states, “I have always felt that if I ever accomplished anything worthwhile in the literary field, it would be with stories dealing of the central and western frontier.” (CL 3.462)

It is likely that Howard would have set Conan aside, but it is uncertain whether he would have ever returned to the character. If he stayed on track with the previous characters he set aside and never returned to, then it is likely he would have not returned to Conan. Though I wouldn't rule it out. Even so, examining his final stories, and the direction in which he stated he wanted to go, and his desire to move away from Conan stories, it seems likely that his fourth writing period would have predominantly been western stories. And if that is the case, he may have actually completed the novel about the Texas frontier.
___________
Abbreviations
CL  The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
OWWA  One Who Walked Alone



2 comments:

David Drage said...

The one consideration that may upset your thinking would be that of paying the bills. His existing relationship with the weird pulps may have kept him churning out "adventure fantasy", albeit possibly grudgingly and while he worked on his Texas frontier novel.
Of course, a lot of that may have depended on Weird Tales actually pay him what they owed him...

Todd B Vick said...

Hey, David. Actually, these trends/periods reflect his financial situation. Part of the reason Howard wrote in certain genres was because of market shifts. However, I'm convinced that Farnsworth Wright developed a new market in the late 1920s/early 30s with Howard (and others) in mind (e.g. Oriental Stories). So, whether he could sell in a particular market does play a part. As for the latter part of his life - Argosy and Action Stories were picking up his westerns, and they were a much bigger magazine market than Weird Tales at the time (at least Argosy was). This would have certainly supported him if he eventually got around to writing his frontier novel.