Thursday, January 18, 2018

Fan Mail: Bloch vs. Conan by Bobby Derie

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian wandered into the pages of Weird Tales with “The Phoenix on the Sword” (Dec 1932), and was followed by “The Scarlet Citadel” (Jan 1933), “The Tower of the Elephant” (Mar), “Black Colossus” (Jun), “The Slithering Shadow” (Sep), “The Pool of the Black One” (Oct), "Rogues in the House" (Jan 1934), "Shadows in the Moonlight" (Apr), "Queen of the Black Coast" (May), "The Haunter of the Ring" (Jun), "The Devil in Iron" (Aug), and the serial "The People of the Black Circle" (Sep-Oct-Nov). Much of the response in “The Eyrie,” the letters-column of Weird Tales, was positive...but in the November 1934 issue there was a letter aimed at the popular series character:

A Crack At Conan
Conan is rapidly becoming a stereotyped hero, but I was greatly pleased with Francis Flagg, a real writer, with something to say. I am awfully tired of poor old Conan the Cluck, who for the past fifteen issues has every month slain a new wizard, tackled a new monster, come to a violent sudden end that was averted (incredibly enough!) in just the nick of time, and won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchant for nudism won her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration. Such has been Conan’s history, and from the realms of the Kushites to the lands of Aquilonia, from the shores of the Shemites to the palaces of Dyme-Novell-Bolonia, I cry: “Enough of this brute and his iron-thewed sword-thrusts-may he be sent to Valhalla to cut out paper dolls.” I would like to see the above tirade in print—I feel sure that many of your other readers would support me—at least there is good material there for an arguement. [Sharpen your axes, you loyal supporters of the Conan tales, for soon we shall publish a short story by Mr. Bloch, the author of the above letter. It is entitled The Secret in the Tomb.—The Editor.]

Robert Bloch
The writer was Robert Bloch, a teenaged fan who was, by coincidence, just about to make his professional debut in Weird Tales. Bloch had begun corresponding with H. P. Lovecraft in 1933 (LRB 9), and as was quite natural for Lovecraft, he shared his thoughts on Robert E. Howard:

Robert E. Howard is a most unusual character—the son of a physician in the wild & woolly, rip-roaring West Texas country, which is actually much more like the sanguinary West of chap fiction than we commonly realise. Howard is 27, & is probably the greatest living authority on the history & traditions of the Southwest, & the lives of America’s noted outlaws. He is a burly, athletic chap fonder of fighting than of literature, & possessed of the curious belief that primitive barbarism is a more desirable sort of social organisation than civilisation. His letters have a greater literary value than his tales. (LRB 23)

You are also right in assuming that Robert E. Howard has never been to Britain. So far as I know, he has never been east of New Orleans—but his imagination is limitless, & he closely identified himself with his Celtic & Norse ancestors. As for his incessant swordplay—which Clark Ashton Smith calls “monotonous manslaughter”—that is undoubtedly an outgrowth of the same frontier psychology which makes him so fond of barbaric life. It is a part of his personality, & I don’t suppose it could be eradicated without upsetting the whole emotional arrangement which makes him a literary creator. He has a very vivid sense of incredible antiquity, & finely suggests the existence of unhallowed elder worlds & forgotten reaches of time. (LRB 28)

Although Lovecraft credited Smith with describing the Conan tales as “monotonous manslaughter,” the phrase is not apparent in Smith’s published letters and may have arisen from Lovecraft himself. Bloch was generally appreciative of Howard’s fiction, a letter to “The Eyrie” published in the April 1934 issue praised “The Valley of the Worm,” though he derided Conan, writing:

Howard, by the way, is wonderful in this issue; if he sticks to atavism, the ancient Britons and Solomon Kane, and drops Conan the Cimmerian Chipmunk, he will maintain his present supremacy in your pages….

In the September issue of that year he wrote:

In heaven's name, publish that author's page! WT has a very interesting staff of authors, indeed. No one could claim a more interesting career than Price, soldier of fortune, etc.; Howard, a typical barbarian like his own Conan; Lovecraft, the recluse; Derleth, the descendant of a count who fled the French revolution; Quinn and his interesting job. yet the bulk of your readers know nothing of these fascinating facts. Loosen up with them!

Price, Howard, Derleth, and Quinn were all prominent writers of Weird Tales, and all were or had been correspondents with Lovecraft; the teenaged Bloch’s succinct summaries of them are a re-capsulation of the portrait of these men (and Lovecraft himself) that had appeared in his letters. So too, Bloch’s opinion of Conan may have been influenced by subtle comments from Lovecraft—who would make notes about Howard’s “incessant swordplay” and “monotonous manslaughter” (LRB 28), and “Two-Gun Bob, the Terror of the Plains, has a few good touches in his “Pool of the Black One”, though other parts cater obviously to herd taste.” (LRB 79-80)—but Lovecraft was obviously unprepared for Bloch’s letter, which prompted a response:

I haven’t had time to read the present issue of W T, but noticed your provocative epistle in the Eyrie. I fear you are just a bit too hard on our distinguished massacre specialist, since some of his stuff has a really distinguished poignancy. Who else can so well convey an idea of unholy antiquity in primal cyclopean ruins? And can anyone deny a certain touch of genuine poetic vision in “The Queen of the Black Coast?” What is more—of all the repeatedly-used stock characters of the WT bunch—Jules de Grandin & so on—it is certain that Conan, hate him as you will, has the most aesthetic justification. He is the least wooden & artificial of all—that is, he reflects more of his creator’s actual feelings & psychology than any other. De Grandin is merely a puppet moulded according to cheap popular demand—he represents nothing of Quinn. But in the moods & reactions & habits of Conan we can clearly trace the sincere emotions & aspirations & perspectives of Howard. De Grandin always acts as a synthetic marionette, but Conan often acts as a living & distinctive human being. Of course, the artistry of Howard is only partial. he is not thoroughly trained, & he writes frankly for a popular pulp audience. Much about Conan is indeed mechanical & absurd—but beyond all that there is a certain genuineness & spontaneousness which can’t be denied or argued away. However—it is to be remarked that a character of this type is probably out of place in weird  as distinguished from adventure fiction—that is, the constant exploitation of such a type is out of place. I can agree with you that the placing of supreme emphasis on the head-cracking & gore-spattering activities of a primitive nomad scarcely contributes much to the weird effect of the scenes through which he hews his way. Howard ought to separate his two gifts—his command of dark, brooding effects, & his sympathetic understanding of the barbarian mind—into separate groups of stories; contributing the one to WT & its congeners, & the other to magazines of the Adventure class. Of course, he does write a great deal of wholly non-weird stuff for things like Action Stories, Fight Stories, &c. He has a prize-fighter character called Steve Costigan who seems to be quite a rival of Conan in his virile affections. Actually, as a creator of vigorously self-expressive & more or less sincere & spontaneous fiction of a certain sort, Howard undeniably stands higher than such absolutely [text erased] puppet-showmen & herd-caterers as Edmond Hamilton, Quinn, Kline, & the latter-day Price. Dividing the WT group into sheep & goats, we can’t avoid placing REH in the upper tier along with Smith, Moore, the old-time Price, & the late Whitehead.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, Nov 1934 (LRB 119)

H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s defense of Howard was compromised by his aesthetic sense; while he was a stout defender of the Texan’s writing, he was not about recognizing the commercial slant of Robert E. Howard’s work, and the tendency for action to overpower a weird element. This came together when the final part of the serial “People of the Black Circle” was published in the December 1934 issue—Lovecraft always waited until serials were complete to read them:

As for Conan—while I stand by my general verdict, I must admit that Two-Gun is tending to go stale a bit...a conclusion brought home to me by his serial. This damned pulp tradition does “get” ‘em all!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, 22 Dec 1934 (LRB 122)

Bloch, however, did not back down, and in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales had another short letter published in The Eyrie, which included the pithy comment “Conan vile, C. L. Moore splendid.” It was the kind of provocation that called for response—and got it. In the January 1935 Weird Tales, fan Fred Anger wrote:

By the beard of the prophet! Several things concerning the November issue have aroused my ire, and several others have done just the opposite. [...] Robert E. Howard brought his serial, The People of the Black Circle, to a very nice close; it takes second place on my voting list. A-n-d, speaking of Robert E. Howard reminds me of our friend Conan. Robert Bloch's nasty crack about our blood-thirsty hero has certainly started something. For the past day the grindstones of Angerville have been whetting my ax, and I am now ready to charge into the fray waving the banner of Conan the Cimmerian. I used to consider Conan a vile and despicable hero, but I have changed and he is now foremost in my estimation as a hero. Bring on your tale by Bloch, The Secret in the Tomb, and I'll cut it to the ground. [...] [To it, ye loyal Conan supporters. A story by Robert Bloch appears in this issue. The Secret in the Tomb will be published later.—The Editor]

Anger would begin correspondence with Lovecraft in Aug 1934, but for the moment he had his axe to grind, and did so with cutting remarks about Bloch’s fiction. The Jan 1935 WT contained Bloch’s first professional publication, “The Feast in the Abbey”—although this was actually Bloch’s second acceptance. As he told the story later:

“The Feast in the Abbey” was five hundred words longer and a smidge better than its predecessor. The editor decided to use it as my first appearance in the magazine, and this proved providential. It attracted enough favorable comment in the letter column to take the curse off my own letter which appeared several months before I became a published writer. In it, as a fan and reader, I had taken somewhat humorous but unmistakable exception to a character called Conan the Barbarian, hero of a series of stories written by Robert E. Howard. Mr Howard was also a correspondent of Lovecraft’s and had written many other tales which I admired, but I found Conan much too barbaric for my tastes.
            Mr. Howard and his barbarous creation had many partisans, all of whom waited in ambush for my own debut. Like Conan himself they were equally adept with broadswords and bludgeons, led by a gentleman whose surname, appropriate enough, was Anger.
            Using missives as missiles they skewered me for my opinion and the even more heinous crime of criticizing a fellow author. The fact that my letter had appeared in an earlier issue, when I was still a fan, didn’t save my neck. I believe execution was avoided only because that second story of mine was printed first. Had the other preceded it, the Conanites might well have argued that anyone who wrote that badly himself had no right to censure the work of his peers. But somehow my story saved me from such a verdict and the literary lynching which might have followed.
            It also taught me a valuable lesson. From that point on and to this very day I have avoided public criticism of my fellow writers, no matter how lousy and rotten their crummy efforts may be.
(Once Around the Bloch 71-72)

May 1935 Weird Tales
“The Secret in the Tomb” was published in the May 1935 Weird Tales. Anger’s letter (and his subsequent criticism of Bloch’s stories in the magazine) formed a part of his correspondence with Lovecraft, where they discussed “how much of its fan vote was deliberately whipped up” (LRB 231), but it also generated its own response from fans; John F. Malone wrote in the Jul 1935 issue:

It seems to me that Fred Anger is unfair to Bloch. I suppose that if C. L. Moore had criticized Conan before his story, Shambleau, was published, Mr. Anger would have him on the rack by now. But please don't get the idea that I don't like Conan. I do, macro-cosmically! And I also like Bloch.

Some fans, like B. M. Reynolds, were less more on the side of Howard, as he wrote in the Mar 1935 issue:

Incidentally, after reading The Feast in the Abbey by Robert Bloch, I must confess that I missed Robert E. Howard and Conan, despite Mr. Bloch's slanderous assertions regarding both.

...and followed up in the May 1935 issue:

And I want to say, here and now, that if Robert Bloch ever turns out a story that will rate even one-half as good as Robert E. Howard's latest, Jewels of Gwahlur, I will take off my hate to him and concede him a master of the weird story. Howard certainly deserves plenty of credit for that tale.

Other fans, like Mrs. L. E. Goodman, writing in the Mar 1935 issue, took a more balanced approach:

Robert E. Howard's fans will criticize Mr. Bloch's story, to get even with him for doing the same with Mr. Howard's stories. But this is unfair. I am a Robert E. Howard fan, but I cannot say anything against Mr. Bloch's fine story. [...] [We are glad to say that you are wrong about Mr. Howard's fans cracking down on Mr. Bloch's little story. On the contrary, many of the letters received give unstinted praise to The Feast in the Abbey, short though that story is; and as this issue goes to press, there have been only two adverse votes. We will shortly publish another brief tale by Mr. Bloch, entitled The Secret in the Tomb.—The Editor]

There were others in “The Eyrie” upset by Bloch than just fans however; fellow pulpsters—fellow because with the January 1935 issue Bloch was now one of them, and a competitor for the limited business provided by Weird Tales. One particularly irate fellow was W. Kirk Mashburn, Jr., a friend and correspondent of E. Hoffmann Price:

Kirk’s loyalty verged on fanaticism. When teen age Robert Bloch wrote the W.T. Eyrie to disparage one of Robert E. Howard’s stories, Mashburn composed a blistering reproof for the upstart boy who dared belittle his betters. (BOD 134)

Mashburn’s letter was published in the March 1935 issue of Weird Tales:

Bloch’s Attacks on Howard
A word about Robert Bloch's attacks on Howard's Conan stories: A reader who buys the magazine for entertainment, and has no personal stake at issue, has every right to offer whatever adverse criticism he thinks justified by what he considers the failure of any writer to come up to expectations. But for one writer, while seeking to establish his own footing, to attack another to the editor--that smacks to me of questionable ethics. Polecat ethics is what I mean; but I hope you print the above paragraph in the Eyrie—there are other offenders besides Brother Bloch—and I know you won't, if I use the words I want to. Please take note that I comment upon Mr. Bloch's ethics, and not upon his story in the January issue.

This was echoed by A. S. Doan in the May 1935 issue:

Without mentioning the Eyrie, I want to register a complaint against printing letters from authors who adversely criticize the work of other authors. Besides showing a lack of fairness and sportsmanship on the part of the writers, it indicates a lack of respect for the desires of the readers, who purchase the magazine and provide a market for their own stories. It is probable that Mr. Bloch wrote in haste and is repenting in leisure as regards his severe criticism of Conan, the admirable barbarian of Robert E. Howard's stories.

Lovecraft at this point suggest Bloch wrote a rejoinder to Mashburn and his other attackers:

I fancy a letter from you explaining the impartiality of your criticism of Two-Gun Bob will adequately answer all criticisms such as Mashburn’s.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, Mar 1935 (LRB 133)

Bloch took the elder pulpster’s advice, and it was published in the May 1935 Weird Tales:

Robert Bloch's Rejoinder
I have been highly interested in the comments anent my so-called 'attack' on Howard in the Eyrie. Now, in all fairness to myself and such readers as Mr. Mashburn, allow me to rise in my own defense against the accusation of using 'polecat tactics'. I believe the following points will serve to clear up the matter.

1st.—I did not attack Howard. On the contrary, my November letter contains only a pseudo-frenzied tirade against one of his heroes, Conan. If you recall, my previous Eyrie letter of April 1934 praises Mr. Howard to the skies for his fine Valley of the Worm and his Solomon Kane stories. At no time have I ever, directly or indirectly, maligned Mr. Howard's fine and obviously talented abilities as a writer; I confined myself solely to a criticism of Conan's career.

2nd.—I have no desire to 'rival' Mr. Howard. I do not presume to pit my seventeen years and some months against his mature brain, nor shall I.

3rd.—I wholly agree with Mr. Mashburn's views regarding the unethical policy of criticizing a fellow-author. But at the time I wrote that letter I had never had anything printed in WEIRD TALES or any other magazine; consequently, when it it appeared, I was not an author at all, but a plain reader, with a reader's rights of criticism. My letter was in November, my first tale in January. I had no intention of doing anything that might be construed as unethical, not can I be considered so in view of these facts. And that, I hope, settles matters. I am glad that some readers liked my story.

This was essentially the end of the matter, at least in “The Eyrie”—and while the whole argument seems rather organic in how it developed and played out, it must be remembered that the Weird Tales letters column was not an open forum, but everything passed through editor Farnsworth Wright—who perhaps took advantage of the bit of controversy that Bloch’s letter generated, and let it run as long as it avoided actual toxicity; it certainly happened to give a bit of quiet publicity to a new writer for the magazine.

There was no response on the matter from Robert E. Howard: either he wisely chose to stay out of it, or Wright wisely chose not to publish any such response; probably the former, since there is absolutely no mention of the affair in any of Howard’s surviving correspondence (a noticeable absence in Howard’s letters with Lovecraft in particular). Bloch’s letters were not missed by Lovecraft’s other correspondents, however, at least not based on Lovecraft’s responses:

Yes—a combat betwixt Two-Gun Bob & little Bobby Bloch would be quite a study in one-sided slaughter! That snap of Bloch was taken when he was 15 or 16—he must be close to 18 now. I don’t imagine he is quite as fragile a creature as the picture would indicate. Two-Gun, on the other hand, is all that he looks & more. He wears a #17 collar, & has such arms & chest muscles that he can’t buy a ready-made coat!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 16 Apr 1935 (LRS 54)

There was not a single sequel to Bloch’s “Crack At Conan,” but rather a series of echoes down his career. Lovecraft would refer to Bloch’s “anti-Conan attitude” while praising Howard’s “The Hour of the Dragon” (LRB 171), and in another letter wrote:

Yes—Bloch is a very good correspondent of mine. I’m sorry he doesn’t like Howard’s work, but realise his right to an opinion of his own. The Conan tales sometimes failed to be truly weird—becoming mere chronicles of adventure & (as Clark Ashton Smith puts it) “monotonous manslaughter”—but some of them were great, while all of them had a rare spontaneous vigour & zest.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 2 Aug 1936 (LRB 381)

In a 1979 interview, Bloch said:

FLANAGAN/79: Has time mellowed your opinion of Conan, since you once referred to him in Weird Tales as “the Cimmerian Chipmunk” and suggests that “he be sent to Valhalla to cut out paper dolls”?

BLOCH: Time hasn’t mellowed my opinion of Conan, though I do pay my respects to Howard and the rest of his output in the introduction I wrote for Glenn Lord’s edited collection The Black Stone. Neither Conan nor Jules de Grandin turned my on, though I was extremely taken with Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry.
(The Robert Bloch Companion 35)

Bloch’s mention of Conan and Jules de Grandin in the same breath echoes many of his complaints in his original letter: these were series characters, and ones where the writers did make some concessions to both popular interest and to the particular editorial interests of editor Farnsworth Wright; even Lovecraft recognized that Robert E. Howard “did now & then feel in duty bound to play up to a Brundage cover-design[.]” (LRB 382) Bloch expanded on this somewhat in another interview:

And, just as did the Sherlock Holmes character, Tarzan has inspired a host of imitations. Conan is definitely one of them. Howard wisely chose to deal with imaginary realms in an imaginary past. So his background remains more viable, more believable today, than Burroughs’ Africa. But Conan himself is just another beefcake hero, another larger-than-life Ursus or Hercules, all muscle and appetite, governed only by a crude concept of barbaric “justice”. He faces and masters none of the internal conflicts which give dimension and universality to Tarzan: he doesn’t really “grow up” or develop. Granted, the maturity which Tarzan attained was a spurious one, founded on the concept of the English “gentleman” (as was Sherlock Holmes) but at least there was a recognition of an idealistic goal towards which man trives. Whereas Conan the Barbarian was, is, and remains just that. Might is right, and to the victor belongs the spoils, and life is generally reduced to a struggle between magic and muscle.
(The Robert Bloch Companion 44)

Bloch’s adult justification for his teenaged criticism is arguable—Conan was many things throughout his life, from young thief to a king by his own hand; and he was more than just a muscle-bound oaf—an idea explored in Frank Coffmann’s “Conan As Bright Barbarian”. Yet the idea of Howard as a sort of limited author was commonplace even through the Howard boom of the late ‘60s; a 1967 letter from Kirk Mashburn to E. Hoffmann Price includes:

Now comes another book, about Bran Mak Morn. There is less material for that than for the others, and, though I hate to admit it, Robt. Bloch was right.
(BOD 140)

This is a reference to the Dell paperback Bran Mak Morn (1969), part of a series of paperbacks which collected and made widely available much of Howard’s fiction for the first time, including previously unpublished works. Mashburn, who had been approached to write a story based on Howard’s notes, but died in 1968 without doing so. (BOD 140-141) Perhaps ironic then, when Robert Bloch wrote the introduction to another paperback Howard collection, Wolfshead (1979), which opened:

That sound you hear is probably Kirk Mashburn turning over in his grave.

I assume, of course, that he is dead. Well over forty years have passed since Mr. Mashburn, a distinguished contributor to Weird Tales magazine, wrote to the letter column and denounced me for criticizing the work of fellow-author Robert E. Howard.

And here I am today, writing an introduction to a volume of Howard's stories. [...]

At the tender age of seventeen I was somewhat startled by what I even then felt to be a tempest in a chamberpot. The pole-categorization by a respectable Southern author and gentlemen bewildered me. And the attacks of the aptly named Mr. Anger, which continued for several years, seemed a form of overkill.
Today I can look back upon the episode with a more charitable eye. Whatever that eye didn't perceive in Howard's Conan saga has been amply recognized by others. Conan has survived through the years as sturdily as he did in the stories, and fittingly champions Howard's fame. (Wolfshead 1-2)

Bloch’s conclusion, at the end of his introduction, is not a refutation of his long-ago letter in “The Eyrie,” or a turnabout on his comments on the character of Conan the Cimmerian. It is, rather, a recognition that whatever his personal sentiments, time had made its own judgement...and that is the one that matters, as Bloch wrote in Out of My Head:

The popular fiction critics are not infallible either. Again, in 1934 and 1935, they were beating the drums for Anthony Adverse, and for Lloyd C. Douglas's Green Light. Since then Anthony has suffered adversity and the Green Light has burned itself out—but people are still reading and enjoying Robert E. Howard and C. L. Moore. So I've come to the conclusion that Chronos is the real critic. Only time will tell—and the true test of writing is survival. (110-111)


BOD    Book of the Dead Friends of Yesteryear: Fictioneers & Others
LRB     Letters to Robert Bloch and Others

LRS     Letters to Richard F. Searight


Jasper Bark said...

Thank you for this fascinating article, I had read of this matter in Bloch's autobiography, but it is a great pleasure to see it fleshed out here, bringing many of the old pulpsters to life. Great work.

Gregg said...

Excellent article!