Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Mirror of E’ch-Pi-El: Robert E. Howard in the Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (Part 2) by Bobby Derie

Lovecraft’s esteem for Howard’s correspondence was such that he expressed the wish that “I’d like to publish all his letters with their descriptive and historical riches.” (SL5.277, cf. LJFM 389, LRS 82), much as August Derleth and Donald Wandrei would later do for Lovecraft himself, noting that “They’d need editing, since they are all replies to specific arguments of mine.” (LRBO 399)—and indeed, having both sides of the argument in A Means to Freedom makes considerably better sense than trying to collate the much-abridged contents of the Selected Letters of Robert E. Howard and the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft.

For all that Lovecraft praised these letters, he quoted rather little from them—as Howard had requested they be kept private (“I don’t have to tell you that a lot of the things of which I speak are in strict confidence.” CL2.416, cf. 3.363), telling Willis Conover “About one of REH’s argumentative letters—he always used to ask me to keep them confidential” (LRBO 399) and F. Lee Baldwin “I’d show you some of his letters if he hadn’t asked me not to let anybody see them.” (SL5.108) Despite this injunction from Howard, Lovecraft did write “I’ll lend you some of his encyclopaedic letters if you think you’d enjoy a sidelight on such an unusual character.” (ES2.524) and a notation on a letter from Howard to Lovecraft ca. December 1932 includes a notation that shows it was “lent out” in this fashion. (CL2.489)

Much of what Lovecraft did pass on from Howard’s letters was essentially business gossip; this part of their correspondence was common with all the pulpsters, passing along what information they had on new pulps coming to market or closing, potential anthologies, where they had sold stories and sometimes for how much. The first such bit of scuttlebutt attributed directly by Lovecraft to Howard was the failure to materialize of Strange Stories, a proposed third magazine to be put out by the Weird Tales group (MTS 268), and later on the demise of its sister publication The Magic Carpet (ES2.619-620). More followed, such as the abortive weird anthology planned by E. Hoffmann Price and Kirk Mashburn (ES1.381, 384) and the British “Not at Night” anthologies (ES2.523).

As well, Lovecraft passed appreciations from Howard on the work of others in Lovecraft’s circle, such as Donald Wandrei. (MTS 294, 308) On one occasion, Lovecraft even took it upon himself to forward a request from Howard (CL2.243) to his correspondents:

By the way—Robert E. Howard himself wishes the gang would speak a good word for his new story in Street & Smith’s Sports Stories. It is the first of a series, & the fate of the later ones depends largely on its public reception. (ES1.378)

Another memorable instance when Lovecraft acted on Howard’s behalf is when he suggested REH as a possible source of material to fanzines such as The Fantasy Fan and The Phantagraph (LRBO 313)—and forwarded “The Hyborian Age” to Donald Wollheim for publication at the latter.

Here is something which Two-Gun Bob says he wants forwarded to you for The Phantagraph, & which I profoundly hope you’ll be able to use. This is really great stuff—Howard has the most magnificent sense of the drama of “history” of anyone I know. He possess a panoramic vision which takes in the evolution & interaction of races & nations over vast periods of time, & gives one the same large-scale excitement which (with even vaster scope) is furnished by things like Stapledon’s “Last & First Men”. (LRBO 319)

On Howard’s fiction, Lovecraft often enough picked out Howard’s stories in Weird Tales as notable, but rarely engaged in any extended praise or criticism of his fiction. In 1931 on “The Moon of Skulls” Lovecraft wrote:

There was room for tremendous power in Howard’s tale of the primal African tomb—& even as it was I got a fairly authentic kick. But he had to work in one of his beloved fights before he could get down to business with the spectral part. (ES1.357)

Similar sentiments of praise (with or without caveats) included: “Wolfshead” (“Now—in ‘26—I saw that W.T. had landed a new big-timer of the CAS and EHP calibre.” SL5.277), “The Black Stone” (“I know it’s trite, but something in it gave me a kick for all that.” ES2.440), “The Horror from the Mound” (“excellent” ES2.471, OFF 29), “People of the Dark” (“has its points, but is strained in many places” ES2.475), “Gods of the North” (“interesting” UL 13), “Worms of the Earth” (SL4.180), “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Tower of the Elephant” (“reach a level of really tremendous power” LA8.32), “Pool of the Black One” (“a few good touches [...] though other parts cater obviously to herd taste” LRBO 79-80), “Old Garfield’s Heart” (“the only items worth reading” OFF 91), “The Valley of the Worm” (“fair” LRBO 97), “Shadows in the Moonlight” (“excellent”, LRBO 102; ES2.629; “Two-Gun Bob’s Conan tale gains distinction from those moon-waked eidola & that pre-human rune in the mouth of a parrot.” OFF 129), “The Haunter of the Ring” (“a resurrected minor effort” ES2.641), “The Garden of Fear” (“does well” LRBO 108), “Devil in Iron” (“notable” OFF 163), “Jewels of Gwahlur” (“[...] isn’t at all bad. It repeats certain Howardian formulae, yet has a certain authentic magic & sense of brooding elder mystery.” OFF 232), “Shadows of Zamboula” (“his usual sanguinary & spirited self” ES2.717; “Two-Gun displays his customary vitality” LRBO 322 “good yarn” LA8.41), “Queen of the Black Coast” (“a certain touch of genuine poetic vision” LRBO 119), “Dig Me No Grave” (“liked it despite a certain stiffness & immaturity” LHK 29; “a powerful (even if a bit hackneyed) tale” LJFM 400), and “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” (“his description of the ancient ruins holding a very striking quality” LJFM 399).  Perhaps the most damning criticism of Howard’s work that Lovecraft ever offered was “REH does tend to run themes into the ground—but for all that he rings the bell now & then.” (ES2.477)

One of Lovecraft’s favorite tales was “Black Canaan,” which unbeknownst to his correspondents had its origins in an anecdote that Howard had related to Lovecraft in the course of their letters (AMTF 1.109-110; CL2.134, 157), and which Lovecraft had urged Howard to turn into a story (AMTF 1.128-129, 144). Of the result, Lovecraft wrote:

His “Black Canaan” is likewise magnificent in a more realistic way—reflecting a genuine regional background & giving a clutchingly powerful picture of the horror that stalks through the moss-hung, shadow-cursed, serpent-ridden swamps of the far south. (LHK 20, cf. LA8.42; LE 23; LRBO 171, 279; LRS 83; MTS 378; UL 16)

Contrast his Black Canaan with the pallid synthetic pap comprising the rest of the current issue of W.T. (SL5.271)

Weird Tales’ best story in the last three issues. (LA8.42; LE 23; UL 16)

Others of Howard’s tales merited only a passing mention regarding the contents of that month’s Weird Tales, including “Rogues in the House” (LRBO 97) and the posthumously published “Black Hound of Death” (LRBO 364, LRS 86, OFF 370). Serials Lovecraft refrained from passing judgment on until they were complete, so he could read them all at once. (LHK 22; LRBO 256-257; OFF 187; SL5.214-215; SR 45,) So Lovecraft wrote of “People of the Black Circle”: “I must admit that Two-Gun is tending to go stale a bit...a conclusion brought home to me by his serial.” (LRBO 122); while claiming “The Hour of the Dragon” “a great piece of work” (LRS 83) and “[…] really splendid. Yuggoth, how that bird can surround primal megalithic cities with an aura of aeon-old fear and necromancy!” (LHK 20; LRBO 171) and “a sustainedly potent performance” (LRBO 279). Howard’s final serial, “Red Nails,” Lovecraft found “only average” (OFF 367) and “seemed not much above the routine level, though of course superior to most pulp junk.” (ES2.752)

Technical criticisms from Lovecraft largely echoed—sometimes literally—those of his peers, quoting Clark Ashton Smith on Howard’s “monotonous manslaughter” (LRBO 28, 171, 381), and with E. Hoffmann Price arguing on Howard’s nomenclature:

The only flaw in this stuff is REH’s incurable tendency to devise names too closely resembling actual names of ancient history—names which, for us, have a very different set of associations. In many cases he does this designedly—on the theory that the familiar names descend from the fabulous realms he describes—but such a design is invalidated by the fact that we clearly know the etymology of many of the historic terms, hence cannot accept the pedigree he suggests. Price & I have both argued with Two-Gun on this point, but we make no headway whatsoever. The only thing to do is to accept the nomenclature as he gives it, wink at the weak spots, & be damned thankful that we can get such vivid artificial legendry. (LRBO 319)

Likewise, the antiquarian Lovecraft disliked Howard’s “occasional use of jarringly modern phrases (mixed with archaic devices!)” in his historical and prehistoric fiction. (LRS 19)

One of the most immediate and frequent references to Howard in Lovecraft’s letters isn’t to the man himself, but his contributions to the shared artificial mythology that developed with Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, and others, to which Lovecraft told Derleth:

I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran. (ES1.353, cf.336)

Illustration by Gary Gianni
Despite Lovecraft’s early affection for the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, Howard’s most singular addition to this Mythos was the the Black Book of von Junzt. Lovecraft was scrupulous in assigning the origin of von Junzt and his tome to Howard, much as he did with Clark Ashton Smith and the Book of Eibon. (LRBO 29, 380, 391; LRS 40; SL5.16, 285-286; UL 37) The Black Book also occasioned Lovecraft’s direct intervention on two occasions. The first involved the German translation of the tome’s name, which appeared in “The Dreams in the Witch House” and other tales, as Lovecraft related in a letter to Richard F. Searight:

Robert E. Howard invented the mythical von Junzt opus, but did not give it a German name—since he is as ignorant as I of German. I thought it would be more convincing to have one, so passed the question to Derleth—who responded with Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Not long afterward Price, recalling his scraps of West Point German, began to question the correctness of this phrase for the exact shade of meaning intended, & offered Unnenbarren as a substitute. Wright—who prides himself on a smattering of German—became convinced that Sultan Malik was right, & refused to use the Derleth version …. forgetting that Sauk CIty was settled by Germans of great cultivation, among whom the language was kept alive in its best form as a heritage, so that little Augie knows what he’s talking about. These matters stood deadlocked until, one day, the ex-illustrator Senf happened in at 840 N. Michigan to talk over old times. He was born & educated in Germany, & obviously has the right dope. The subject was brought up, & C. C. unhesitatingly voted for Derleth… thus settling the matter, & atoning for all the third-rate “art” he perpetrated in the dear dead days gone by! So it is certain that the monstrous compilation of Herr von Junzt (with its cryptic borrowings from the Eltdown Shards) was issued in Düsseldorf under the title Unaussprechlichen Kulten! (LRS 40)

The whole of the exchange on Unaussprechlichen versus Unnennbarren was carried out through letters, involving a rather complicated exchange between Lovecraft, Farnsworth Wright, August Derleth, and E. Hoffmann Price. (ES2.448, 628, 630-2, 635, 642) The second involved the name of Howard’s author—REH himself having left it simply as “von Junzt,” both Robert Bloch and Lovecraft sought to fill in the gap:

[Y]ou give Howard’s von Junzt the praenomen of Conrad, whereas at least one printed allusion (which I put in a story I ghost-wrote for a revision-client!) establishes it as Friedrich. Howard himself, amusingly enough, did not give von Junzt a first name so far as I know. (LRBO 56)

Lovecraft vastly preferred Howard’s weird fiction to his other pulp work—on passing off his copy of Howard’s early sports story “College Socks” to August Derleth, Lovecraft says only “despite my admiration for the author’s vivid letters on Texas history & tradition I have no burning urge to retain this especial narrative.” (ES1.384) This is not to say that Lovecraft didn’t appreciate Howard’s other talents, writing to J. Vernon Shea “For prize fight stuff I’d apply to Bob Howard.” (SL4.192), and to Wilfred B. Talman (then editor of The Texaco Star):

Howard is the chap who can give you the colour—the sweep of the oil camps across the primal Texas plains, and the pageantry and social developments connected with them. He does not welcome the coming of the derricks and the slimy black ooze, but he is acutely sensitive to their place in the long drama of the Lone Star country. (SL3.173)

Similar to his feelings regarding E. Hoffmann Price, Lovecraft—ever the auteur—both regretted the Texan’s concessions to popular taste and admired his ability to do it.

Price is quite an expert in striking a compromise betwixt his own taste & the rabble’s grotesque cravings—& Robert E. Howard is no slouch at the same game. (LRS 19)

The really lucky guy is the one whose natural mode of expression happens—through pure chance—to coincide with some form of writing in popular demand. Robert E. Howard is the best example of this I can think of at the moment—his stories sell, but they have a zest & naturalness which at once distinguish them from the listless, synthetic pap of ….. all the rest of the hacks …. (SL5.31-32)

It is useless to point out that a few tremendously vigorous authors like Two-Gun Bob do somehow find a way to circumvent commercialism in part, & get a few good stories published in spite of Mammon-standards. Even in this case a cruel waste of energy & ability—which might have gone into aesthetic creation—is involved, & the net output of the author is just so much less excellent than it would have been in in the absence of commercial pressures. (SL5.328)

Picture from E. Hoffmann Price's
"Book of the Dead"
Perhaps not without a hint of irritation or jealousy at how readily Wright accepted these popular efforts while rejecting some of his best work, Lovecraft once wrote of Farnsworth Wright: “No doubt he turned down my Mts. of Madness because it wasn’t like one of Two-Gun’s African ruins stories!” (OFF 230)

Correspondingly, Lovecraft noted the increasing adventure aspect of his Weird Tales offerings, and the associated decrease of any weird element. For example in 1934 regarding “A Witch Shall Be Born” he wrote: “Two-Gun Bob hits a very fast stride in his adventure story—which is weird only by courtesy & by the laborious dragging in of a monster.” (ES2.671, cf. LRS 41) This sentiment that “REH is surely turning from weirdness to sheer adventure these days.” (ES2.708) was most fully expressed to Natalie H. Wooley:

Two-Gun-Bob is a definite recruit for adventure fiction. He keeps up a thin allegiance to weirdness, but it is in the slashing & mangling & escaping that his real zest lies. At that, he is miles ahead of all the hack pulpists—Kline, Quinn & (alas, alas!) the post-1932 Price—since he obviously enters enthusiastically into all his sanguinary upheavals. His own personality & ideas stick out all over his stories. (LRS 58)

One of the most amusing incidents related in Lovecraft’s letters regarding this tendency of Howard’s came in his reports on “The Challenge From Beyond.” A round robin instituted by Julius Schwartz, editor of Fantasy Magazine, the story included separate segments from C. L. Moore, A. Merrit, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long, in that order. (LRS 64-65; OFF 299; SL5.199-200) Lovecraft’s section included many typical aspects of his fiction, including an educated, bloodless protagonist—while Howard’s section typical of his own unique brand of fiction:

It amused me to see how quickly Two-Gun converted the scholarly & inoffensive George Campbell into a raging Conan or King Kull! (LRBO 163, cf. LRS 70; MTS 372; OFF 305)

Even so, Lovecraft’s regard for Howard was not limited to weird fiction, and he noted of Howard:  “His best work would probably have been regional and historical, and I was greatly pleased by his recent tendency to employ his own south-western background in fiction.” (SL5.278), referring implicitly to Howard’s success with the Breckinridge Elkins and Pike Bearfield stories. It was typical of Lovecraft that he thought Howard’s real talent and fame laid not in pulp-fiction, but “serious” regional writing, one commenting to August Derleth: “He really has tremendous brilliancy, & if his attainments could be disciplined he’d do for West Texas what you’re doing for Sac Prairie.” (ES2.524)

How much of REH’s non-weird fiction—his orientales of El Borak, the fighting fiction of Sailor Steve Costigan, Dennis Dorgan, and Kid Allison, etc.—that Lovecraft actually read is debatable, though he was certainly aware of some of them from his letters with Howard. Given Lovecraft’s main interest in weird fiction and that being the principle shared interest with those he corresponded with, likely he simply didn’t feel the need or desire to bring up Howard’s non-weird stories very much.

Works Cited

AMTF        A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols.)
CL             Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda)
ES             Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (2 vols.)
LA              Lovecraft Annual (9 vols.)
LAG           Letters to Alfred Galpin
LE              H. P. Lovecraft in “The Eyrie”
LET           Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw
LJFM         Letters to James F. Morton
LHK           Letters to Henry Kuttner
LRBO        Letters to Robert Bloch and Others
LRS           Letters to Richard F. Searight
MTS          Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei
OFF           O Fortunate Floridian: H. P. Lovecraft’s Letters to R. H. Barlow
SL              Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols.)
SLCAS      Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith
SR             Sable Revery
UL             H. P. Lovecraft: Uncollected Letters
WD            Fritz Leiber and H. P. Lovecraft: Writers of the Dark

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