Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Literary Influences of Robert E. Howard: Arthur O. Friel by Todd B. Vick


Adventure June 3, 1921
Adventure magazine played an integral part in Robert E. Howard’s life as a writer (and reader). According to Howard, he discovered the magazine on a summer evening when he had “exhausted all the reading material on the place.” (CL 3.87) He apparently walked to downtown Cross Plains and ventured into one of the shops (possibly Higginbotham or one of the local drug stores; he never reveals the locale), and discovers the magazine on the rack. The stories in Adventure dazzled him so much he continued to purchase the magazine for years.
As best as I can determine, the Adventure magazine Howard purchased that summer evening was most likely the June 3, 1921 issue. The issue featured two writers who would make a lasting impression on fifteen-year-old Howard: Arthur O. Friel and Rafael Sabatini. Both writers are similar in style and content (e.g. swashbuckling sword fights, etc.), though the settings of their adventure stories are worlds apart; many of Friel’s stories are typically set in South America (Amazon/Brazil) and Sabatini’s in various different locales. Howard would utilize (and mimic) both writer’s style. From Friel, Howard borrows vast jungle settings, from Sabatini Howard borrows rapier sword duels (and other things). Sabatini also fueled Howard’s passion for pirate stories. We will examine Rafael Sabatini’s influence on Howard in a future post. For now, let’s turn our attention to Arthur O. Friel.
That June 3 1921 issue of Adventure was most likely the first time Howard had encountered Arthur O. Friel’s work. Friel’s story “The Barrigudo” was in that issue. After this first encounter with the magazine, Howard indicated that he continued to purchase Adventure for years, when he could afford it. By fall of 1921, October the 10th to be precise, Howard began reading Friel’s four-part series “The Pathless Trail.” The subsequent parts appeared in these issues of Adventure: October 20 (part 2), October 30 (part 3), and November 10 (part 4). This series and other stories by Friel would be paramount for Howard’s stylistic prose for several of his Solomon Kane and his latter adventure fantasy stories (e.g. Conan) stories.

Arthur Olney Friel
For sheer adventure in faraway uncharted Amazonian jungles, Friel was the consummate writer for Adventure. In fact, he had quite a large readership. Friel’s descriptive prose and quick paced action narrative would apply a deep brand on Howard’s early published works.  Now, back to Friel’s four-part series “The Pathless Trail.” I chose this series by Friel because Howard indicated that he read it (REHB appendix 2), and to a large degree, Howard mimics Friel’s narrative style and structure in several of his Solomon Kane stories. Howard uses this style and structure throughout his career in various places until he perfects it and places his own stamp on it, coupling it with his own signature prose rhythm and pace. He then uses it later in his Conan stories. This style also influences Howard’s writing voice throughout his publishing career. There are a handful of writers who influenced Howard in this fashion, and Friel is one of them.
The columns below show the similarities between Friel’s and Howard’s use of language, description, style, and sentence structure.

“Day by day the downflowing jungle river pushed steadily, sullenly against its prow, as if striving to repel the invasion of its secret places.” From Friel’s “The Pathless Trail”
“He gazed at the huts, wondering why the thatch roofs of so many were torn and rent, as if by taloned things seeking entrance.” From Howard’s “Wings in the Night”
“The bushman turned at once and stole away. The others turned the canoes, transported the necessary duffle to the base of the hollow tree, made camp, and squatted against the trunk to smoke, watch, and wait. Several times they heard calls receding in the distance. Then came silence.” (Ibid)
“When all were buckling from exhaustion. The sun dipped, night rushed on, and a halt was called. Camp was pitched, guards thrown out, and the slaves were fed scantily and given enough water to keep life in them – but only just enough.” From Howard’s “The Footfalls Within”
“Worming around gigantic columns, crawling over rotting trunks, changing directions abruptly when blocked by some great butt too high to be scaled, sinking ankle-deep in clinging mud, the venturesome band wound along through the wilderness. The general trend of the march was southeast, but impassable obstacles encountered at frequent intervals necessitated not only detours, but sometimes actual backtracking.” (Ibid)
“The littoral of the great river altered. Plains turned into swamps that stank with reptilian life. Where fertile meadows had rolled, forests reared up, growing into dank jungles. The changing ages wrought on the inhabitants of the city as well. They did not migrate to fresher lands. Reasons inexplicable to humanity held them to the ancient cities and their doom.” From Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast”

These examples demonstrate that Howard, as a reader of stories and writers he loved, paid attention to what he was reading. Friel’s influence on Howard’s early and later writing style is certainly present in these three examples. There are a host of other examples between the two writers, but these three examples work well to drive home my point.
            A use of hearty pronouns to vividly describe landscapes and action in each of their stories was frequently utilized. In fact, the language and style between the two writers was fairly common among pulp writers. The writers who stood out among the hundreds of pulp writers from this era are, however, the ones who not only utilized these techniques, but chose their words carefully to help control their story’s pace, creating a much better tone and rhythm. Even though other pulp writers like Friel influenced Howard. Howard stood out due to his signature prose, distinct writing voice, and his ability to astutely control the pace of his narrative, taking hold of his reader and pulling them through the scenery and action. In other words, Howard took what he liked in Friel’s work, made it his own, and then wrote better and far more enduring tales.


The Pathless Trail
Time-Lost Series
Centaur Press, 1969

            With all this in mind, it’s interesting that Arthur O. Friel is mentioned only once in all of Robert E. Howard’s letters. In a letter to Carl Jacobi from the Summer of 1934, Howard declares, “I was much interested to note that you are acquainted with Arthur O. Friel. He has been one of my favorite authors for years.” That’s it, one simple statement indicating that Howard had read Friel’s work for years and that Friel was one of Howard’s favorite authors. We have certainly seen why this is the case. Interestingly, Arthur O. Friel never broke free from Adventure magazine into the wider publishing community. Although, in 1950 he managed to publish a collection of his stories from Adventure. Some of these same stories were republished in 1969 by Centaur Press for their Time-Lost series. It’s worth noting that three of the volumes in this same Time-Lost series from Centaur Press are Robert E. Howard collections containing several Solomon Kane tales and fragments. The two writers certainly complement each other in this series and, Howard would be proud to know his work was published in a series of works that included one of his favorite writers, Arthur O. Friel.

Works Cited
CL           Collected Letters
REHB     The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf
The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane     Del Rey, 2004
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian   Del Rey, 2003
The Pathless Trail   Centaur Press, 1969



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