Not every letter from every pulp writer that survives has been published; many remain on the open market and in private hands, coming up for sale from time to time...and they have stories to tell about Robert E. Howard.
The letter was posted on Facebook in Sep 2016 by Bob Meracle, who wrote of the acquisition:
One of the "lots" August Derleth Offered to sell to me (and I gladly snapped it up) was a collection of manuscripts which included 3 signed typewritten Conan stories. I sold the 3 a couple decades ago, but held onto this cool note that was sandwiched between them.
While not explicitly stated, these typescripts were likely originally from the collection of R. H. Barlow. In 1932, Barlow solicited manuscripts and typescripts from Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, C. L. Moore, and other pulp writers, and Howard responded by sending several early typescripts for stories. Barlow’s receipt of these typescripts is mentioned in his 1933 diary, as well as in surviving letters from Howard. (CL 2.519; 3.47, 219) After Barlow’s death, his mother sold his collection.
The identity of the recipient is unknown; the name on the letter, although effaced, is too long to be "Barlow," and we know Howard sent Barlow a letter dated the very next day (14 June 1934, CL 3.215), so it is unlikely that Barlow was the recipient. So we are left with only the internal evidence of the letter. The reference to a request for a snap-shot recalls Barlow’s correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft in late 1933, although this might be coincidental. (OFF 78, 81) The reference to turpentine camps and voodoo is thus the primary clue.
“Turpentine camps” were work camps, largely employing black labor, including leased convict labor and sometimes workers held in debt bondage (i.e. charging them for food, clothing, etc. more than their wages could supply). These workers distilled turpentine from the resiny pine forests in the southern United States; during the 1930s their geographic range extended from North Carolina to Louisiana near the Texas border, with notable operations in Georgia and Florida. Zora Neale Hurston visited such camps to collect folk songs, magical recipes, and stories, some of which were published in academic articles and her collection Mules and Men (1935).
This was part of a general trend of anthropologists and collectors of ethnic music and folklore visiting prisons, work camps, and remote communities in the 1930s to record this material before it was lost—including a friend of R. H. Barlow.
Well, well—& so a friend of yours, like William B. Seabrook, has come into first-hand contact with the horrors of Damballa & his serpents. Who knows what waddling nigger washerwoman may not be a potent & dangerous mamaloi with power to evoke nameless horrors & send hideous zombis stalking through the land!—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 21 Oct 1933 (OFF 83)
Thanks tremendously for the voodoo report, which I've read with extreme interest. your friend seems to have been quite an amateur Wm. B. Seabrook—& the experience must have been powerfully moving in its way. Later on, if you ever make a copy, I certainly wouldn't mind a spare carbon. Those "geachi" blacks must be rather an interesting study.—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 13 Nov 1933 (OFF 85)
That voodoo encounter surely was picturesque—I'd hardly care to get into such close quarters with a crowd of excited blacks, but anthropological zeal will carry one far. So the "geechis" owe their superiority to insular isolation! I believe that, in general, all the Carolina island negroes are called "gullahs", & that their dialect differs from that of the mainland blacks. No doubt the geechis are a variety of these.—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 29 Nov 1933 (OFF 88)
William Seabrook was a notable writer; works like The Magic Island (1929) concerning Haitian vodou, which Lovecraft read while visiting Henry S. Whitehead in Florida in 1931, helped popularize voodoo in the United States (and among the readers of Weird Tales); Robert E. Howard also referred to Seabrook in his letters (CL 3.444). The Gullah (also Geechee, etc.) are distinct African-American communities in South Carolina and Georgia who speak a creole language and have a creole culture.
Barlow’s friend is unidentified in the surviving letters, nor is there a specific mention of turpentine camps; the correlation of reference to snap-shots and study of voodoo in 1933 could be coincidental—as could the location of the note among a parcel of typescripts probably once owned by Barlow. Still, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that Barlow might have encouraged his friend to write to Robert E. Howard asking for a snapshot, and to share his experiences with the Texas pulpster.
Whether there was any more to this correspondence is unknown; there are no references to turpentine camps in Howard’s other correspondence, and references to voodoo are few and do not appear to be related. Likewise, we have no evidence of any direct influence on Howard’s life or writing—thought it is perhaps notable that in late 1934 Howard wrote “Pigeons from Hell,” his story which most prominently features voodoo, including reference to Damballah and zombies.
Sold on eBay in early 2019, this note is brief but interesting. While the last digit of the year is undiscernable, Lovecraft gives his address on the back of the envelope as 66 College St., where he moved in May 1933 (OFF 61-63), setting one boundary; the other is a little tricky, as there is no reference to this note in the published correspondence of Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Donald Wandrei, or Bernard Austin Dwyer.
However, we do know that the contents were presumably sent in early or mid January, and included two unpublished works—Robert E. Howard’s “The God in the Bowl” presumably being one of them, since it was not being published during the Texan’s lifetime. Lovecraft acknowledged receipt of C. L. Moore’s unpublished typescript for “Werewoman” in a letter dated 2 January 1936, so it is possible that he included Howard’s typescript or manuscript at the same time, though Lovecraft failed to mention this. (OFF 313) In a letter dated 29 Jan 1936, Lovecraft mentions both visiting with Donald Wandrei over the holiday and had heard from Dwyer. (OFF 314, 316) This note, postmarked the day after, could be a brief follow-up to that letter.
At the time, Barlow was compiling material for his amateur publication The Dragon-Fly, the second (and final) issue of which was published May 1936; a few years later Barlow would publish “Werewoman” in the second issue of another amateur magazine, Leaves (Winter 1938). “The God in the Bowl” was written by Robert E. Howard in 1932 and rejected by Weird Tales (CL 2.315n196, 329n209), just the kind of material that Barlow was looking for (and perhaps the reason Barlow sent Howard a copy of The Dragon-Fly in winter 1935, CL 3.417). Howard allowing a fan to have an unpublished and rejected story was not out of character: he had done the exact same thing when he allowed Charles D. Hornig to have “Gods of the North”/“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” for The Fantasy Fan in 1934—and Barlow as a subscriber to TFF would have known that.
Whether Howard had lent Barlow the typescript for this purpose or simply for his collection as with the previous typescripts that Barlow had solicited from Howard is unclear, as there is no mention of it in the surviving correspondence. Ultimately the story was not published by Barlow. No surviving draft or typescript for “The God in the Bowl” is known to have been associated with Barlow either, which raises the possibility that an unknown draft of “The God in the Bowl” might exist or have existed at some point—imagine a version of the story starring Amra of Akbitania, following the same convention of renaming Conan as in “Gods of the North!”
This brief note is the only reference that shows Barlow or Lovecraft were aware of or had read “The God in the Bowl”—a very untypical Conan story, to say the least, whose reference to law, justice, and police work echoes Lovecraft and Howard’s correspondence on those subjects in the early 1930s. If the typescript had been sent to Barlow some period of time after the teenager’s initial correspondence with Howard in 1933, in response to a solicitation for unpublished material, it might explain why there is no reference to it in Howard’s earlier letters.
Both letters are ultimately ciphers: there is more to conjecture about than any hard facts to go by, other than the apparently indisputable facts that Howard received a letter from someone who claimed to have witnessed voodoo at a turpentine camp, and that Lovecraft had received “The God in the Bowl” from Barlow and apparently read it.
CL The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
OFF O Fortunate Floridian!