Sunday, February 4, 2018

First Fans: Robert E. Howard and Emil Petaja by Bobby Derie

I was born in Milltown, Montana, a very small but pleasant village in western Montana near Missoula. Date, April 12, 1915. The town is located in a wide valley between forested mountains, at the fork of two rivers. Our old house was on the bank of the Hellgate, which the valley itself was called in the old days because of the bloody Indian battles fought there between the Blackfeet and the Eastern tribes. My parents emigrated here early in the century. Both came from farming Finns, my father from a rather well-to-do landowner family. Petaja is a well known family name in Finland. [...] There were so many Finns (besides other Scandinavian ethnic groups) in Milltown that at that time it was often called Finntown. Like most everybody else, I worked at the local sawmill, but only long enough to earn enough to go to Montana State University, where I also worked part-time while attending. We spoke Finnish at home and the ancient stories and legends of my mother country, Kalevala, Land of Heroes, and others, were infused in me early in my childhood. (ADAS i, cf. OFF 205)

Emil Petaja
Emil Petaja first appears on the scene in a letter to Weird Tales (June 1932). The sixteen year old reader of science fiction and fantasy soon fell into the gravitational pull of fandom, becoming a subscriber to The Fantasy Fan; his first letter appeared in the Dec 1933 issue, on the opposite page from letters by Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft; he was soon an active contributor with the article series “Famous Fantasy Fiction” (Feb, Jul, Aug 1934), which consisted of brief descriptions of volumes of weird and fantastic fiction, such as:

Lord Dunsany’s two delightful books, “A Dreamer’s Tales” and “Book of Wonder” can now be had in the Modern Library list. After reading the dark tales of Lovecraft, Howard, etc., these are a refreshing change. (FF Aug 1934, 180)

In late December 1934, Petaja wrote to both H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, sharing with each a poem the 19-year-old had written, dedicated to them—“Lost Dream” to Lovecraft, and “Echo from the Ebon Isles” to Howard. (ASDS 67-68, cf. CL 3.259)

Have been hearing lately from Emil Petaja, a youth whose letters you've seen in the F F. He's a violinst—& the other day he sent a really well-written sonnet dedicated jointly to CAS & me. Annexed to it was a coloured crayon drawing of his—of surprising skill. I'm going to show it to you presently. Apparently all the coming generations are artists of a sort!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Dec 1934, OFF 195

Dear Mr. Petaja:
Thank you very much for the splendid sonnet, “Echo From the Ebon Isles.” I feel deeply honored that a poem of such fine merit should be dedicated to me. You seem to grasp the motif of my stories, the compelling idea-force behind them which is the only excuse for their creation, more completely than any one I have yet encountered. This fine sonnet reveals your understanding of the abstractions I have tried to embody in these tales. The illustration fits the text splendidly, and partakes of its high merit. I foresee an enviable future for you as a poet and artist.
I look forward to reading your work in The Fantasy Fan, and hope that you and Mr. Rimel will market that short story you mentioned with Weird Tales.
In response to your request for an ms. copy, I am sure I can find something of the sort, when I rearrange my files, which are at present in a chaotic state. In the meantime I am enclosing a so far unpublished bit of verse, “Cimmeria” for your notebook. Hope you like it.
Thanking you again for the splendid sonnet, I am,
[Robert E. Howard]
—Robert E. Howard to Emil Petaja, 14 Dec 1934, CL 3.259-260

Duane W. Rimel
Duane W. Rimel was a couple months older than Petaja, and lived in Asotin, Washington, and began writing to H. P. Lovecraft only a little later—26 Dec 1934. (LFLB 10) Rimel and Petaja were separated by over 200 miles, but still appear to have been in close collaboration on a few matters. The short story Howard mentions never came to anything, although Rimel wrote several stories for The Fantasy Fan, Unusual Stories, and Fanciful Tales of Time and Space, and eventually cracked Weird Tales with “The Disinterment” (Jan 1937); he is also remembered today for his linoleum cuts of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and may have helped Rimel with some of the linoleum cuts for Fanciful Tales (OFF 339). The two young men shared an interest in music as well as weird fiction, and eventually collaborated on the article “Weird Music” which appeared in The Phantagraph (Jul 1936). (LFLB 311, 316, 374-375)

Robert E. Howard appreciated Petaja’s sonnet sufficiently to mention it to his on-again, off-again girlfriend Novalyne Price:

Several times, Bob has shown me letters he’s gotten from fans of his. He had one from Providence and one from New York just the other day. They have all been nice letters, and I can understand his pride.
            But he has never been prouder than he was to receive a sonnet dedicated to him by a man named Petaja. He showed me the sonnet a couple of months ago.
            I’ll never forget the night he brought it to show me. He stood silently while I read it. Then he asked me if I wanted to read it aloud. I said I would, and so I read it aloud. When I finished, I told him I’d like to have a copy of it. That pleased him. He said he’d make me a copy and either send it to me or bring it the next time he came. (OWA 128)

Howard did eventually send her a copy of the poem. (CL 3.281, OWA 129) While there is no reason to doubt her account of events, there may be a question of the timing; based on Howard’s reply to Petaja, he received the sonnet circa the first half of December 1934, and in his letter (and Novalyne’s account) “several months” went by before he furnished her a copy with his letter—so, perhaps February; Novalyne’s narrative however picks up 21-22 Dec 1934. So either the date for the letter to Novalyne in the Collected Letters is correct, and Petaja sent his sonnet some months earlier, or Novalyne was telling events slightly out of order, and the date in the Collected Letters is off by a couple of months.

In any event, Petaja’s correspondence with both Lovecraft and Howard continued to develop from that point. Only a fraction of these letters have survived and been published, but Lovecraft’s correspondence seems to have been fuller—Petaja had gotten Lovecraft onto the subject of realistic settings in weird fiction, religion, the supernatural, and life on other planets, which accounts for several long, pedantic letters. (SL5.85-86, 116-120, 139-140, 152-154, 170-173) One of these mentions Howard:

As for the actual beliefs of celebrated weird writers—I fancy they are divided. Blackwood & Machen seem to have lingering supernatural ideas, but Dunsany, Poe, Bierce, James, Shiel, & Ewers do not. Of the cheap magazine weirdists, the only orthodox religionist I know of is the peculiar H. Warner Munn. Derleth believes in natural telepathy but not in the supernatural. Donald Wandrei believes in undiscovered natural laws, but not in immortality, deity, or anything religious. Clark Ashton Smith, Barlow, Cook, Long, Koenig, Francis Flagg, Howard Wandrei, & I have no beliefs outside recognised natural science. R. E. Howard & some others are undecided agnostics—suspending all belief till further proof is available. Most of the science-fiction writers—Hamilton, Williamson, Keller, &c.—believe as little as I do.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 5 Apr 1935, SL5.140

Lovecraft and Howard do not otherwise appear to have mentioned each other to Petaja, or mentioned the young college student in their mutual correspondence. This was not an unusual practice for either man. Petaja’s correspondence with Howard continued to develop:

Dear Mr. Petaja:
Glad the ms. proved satisfactory. Haven’t located that last page yet, but know it’s around here somewhere. The yarn on the back of the pages is — if I remember correctly — a weird story called “Black Canaan” based on a real life character with a realistic background (though the latter considerably altered) the region actually known as “Canaan” in southwestern Arkansas, between Tulip Creek and the Ouachita River, not far from the ancestral home of the Howards. The story hasn’t found a market so far.
Thanks very much for the copy of the poem, and congratulations on its excellence. It is really a splendid piece of work. I hope you’ll keep on writing poetry, and I feel you’ll eventually find a market for your work.
Glad you liked “The Black Stone.” It appeared in the British Not at Night anthology for 1932. Yes, I wrote the verses attributed to “Justin Geoffrey.” Glad you liked them.
As for Old Mexico, I’ve been across the Border a few times but haven’t spent enough time in the south to learn much of the language (the peon patois differs considerably from text-book Spanish) and when I lived in South Texas I was so small I could scarcely make myself understood in English, even.
Sorry to hear you and Mr. Rimel haven’t found a market for your collaboration, and I hope you’ll sell the story and poems you mentioned.

With best wishes
[Robert E. Howard.]
—Robert E. Howard to Emil Petaja, 6 Mar 1935, CL3.304-305

Apparently in a response to Petaja’s first letter, Howard had sent a manuscript of one of his stories—a gesture for a fan, much as Howard had already done for R. H. Barlow. (CL2.519) The reference to “The yarn on the back” refers to Howard’s practice of using the blank back pages of manuscripts to draft new stories to save paper; Howard had submitted “Black Canaan” to his agent in Sep 1934, and in Nov 1934 submitted a rewritten version (CL 3.304n296)—and an alternate draft of the story is known to exist (Robert E. Howard Foundation Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2017), so it isn’t clear which version of “Black Canaan” (except that it was almost certainly not the final draft) was sent to Petaja—or what was on the other side of those pages! Petaja’s praise for “The Black Stone” was echoed in a letter published in “The Eyrie” a few months later:

Robert E. Howard is excellent—but why doesn't he write some more stories like The Black Stone? (Weird Tales Aug 1935)

The Fantasy Fan ceased publication with the Feb 1935 issue, but Petaja continued to write prose and verse, with Lovecraft’s encouragement (LFLB 258), and Howard recommended Petaja to Donald Wollheim as a possible source of contributions for his new fanzine, The Phantagraph. (LRB 313) While Petaja doesn’t appear to have had much luck placing material, he managed to land a poem, “Witches Bercuese” in the final issue of Marvel Tales (Summer 1935).

Dear Mr. Petaja:
Please believe my delay in answering your letter of April 4th was not due to any lack of interest or appreciation of your kindness. I’m behind in all my correspondence. Right now, for instance, I owe letters to E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and August Derleth, among others. Several things have combined to cause this delay. Since writing you last I was forced to spend a month in East Texas, during which time I was unable to do any writing of any kind; since then I have been to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and have found it necessary to make a number of other shorter trips, all of which took up a certain amount of time, and reduced my leisure. As a result work and correspondence have accumulated, to a considerable extent.
I read your recent poem: “Witch’s Bercuese” in the recent Marvel Tales and liked it very much; the rhythm is smooth and musical and the somber motif is fascinating. I’ll be looking forward to reading your short story: “Antique”, and hope to see your work soon in Weird Tales.
Glad you like the bits of verse I sometimes use for chapter headings. They are mine, except where due credit is given to the author — in the past I have used quotations from Chesterton, Kipling, Poe, Swinburne, and possibly others which I do not at present recall. In each case a by-line gave the author his due credit. Where there was no by-line the verse was mine, and also in the case where the verse was credited to Justin Geoffrey, who is, of course, as mythical as Abdul Alhazred.
Thanking you again for your kind comments regarding my works, I remain,
 [Robert E. Howard.]
—Robert E. Howard to Emil Petaja, 23 Jul 1935, CL3.365-366

Lovecraft’s praise was more succinct, writing to Rimel “Petaja's poem is the only thing of value in the entire issue.” (LFLB 277) With the demise of The Fantasy Fan, Rimel and Petaja conceived of putting out their own fanzine—with Lovecraft’s ardent encouragement, going so far as to promise them they could publish the revised edition of his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and his short story “The Nameless City.” (LFLB 278, 279, 281, 283, 291) The project was tentatively titled The Fantaisiste’s Mirror. Petaja apparently wrote of this project to Howard, who responded:

Dear Mr. Petaja:
Yes, I did like “Witch’s Berceuse” very much, and hope to see more of your poetry soon. I’ll be looking forward to those poems and short stories due to appear in Marvel Tales, and see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to market some of your work to Weird Tales. Many poems have appeared in that magazine which were inferior to your “Witch’s Berceuse”.
You mention that your brother is manager of the Woolworth store in Sante Fe. I might have seen him, without knowing him of course, for I remember going in there to buy some rubbing alcohol. If you decide to visit the Southwest, I hope you’ll be able to visit me. Cross Plains is about 800 miles from Sante Fe, but there’s a good road all the way, especially if you come by El Paso, though that makes it quite a bit further. I’d be glad to see you.
I am much interested in the magazine you and Mr. Rimel are contemplating launching; I wish you the best of luck with it, and would be more than glad to contribute to it.
You ask me about an agent. Until a couple of years ago I handled my work myself, but since then most of it has been handled by Mr. Otis Adelbert Kline, 4333 Castello Avenue, Chicago. I have found him very satisfactory in every way, and do not hesitate to recommend him.
I’ll be looking forward to the appearance of your magazine and wish you the best of luck with your own writing; you have real talent and should succeed at the game.
—Robert E. Howard to Emil Petaja, 6 Sep 1935, CL3.368-369

Unfortunately, the fanzine never came to be, as Rimel explains:

At one time we planned to put out a fan magazine, but lack of funds and being so far apart was in the way. Lovecraft even sent us material for the project—none other than “The Nameless CIty.” (LFLB 372)

Lovecraft made an effort to get Petaja together with Rimel—first by encouraging Rimel to take a course at the University of Montana, and then suggesting they meet up somewhere convenient. (ES2.6787; LFLB 265, 271) Eventually, Rimel & Petaja met in Spokane, Washington state in Sep 1935:

Then there was the time when Emil Petaja and I arranged a meeting in Spokane. We had been corresponding energetically for several months, when the idea struck us. He lived in Milltown, Montana, not far from Missoula, and would have further to come than I, but he was willing. We met as arranged and had quite a day talking, haunting book-stores, and so on. Baldwin had left Asotin then, so there was just the two of us in a big town. (LFLB 372, cf. 284, 288)

No more letters from Howard to Petaja have come to light, though the two must have shared common interests in Weird Tales, Marvel Tales, and Fanciful Tales of Time and Space, and may have corresponded on that material. When Robert E. Howard died in June 1936, Lovecraft wrote long letters to his correspondents mourning the loss...his letter to Petaja is unpublished, as is most of the Lovecraft/Petaja correspondence, but Lovecraft wrote:

Petaja's sonnet to Two-Gun—which I am tremendously glad REH saw & appreciated—surely has a significant ending in the light of recent events.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 27 Aug 1936, LFLB 331

WT Jan 1939
Emil Petaja’s sonnet “Echo from the Ebon Isles” was eventually published by Weird Tales in the Jan 1939 issue, where it appeared under the title “The Warrior”—with some slight differences in punctuation—but this is how Robert E. Howard read it:

A sonnet—
Dedicated to the Modem Master of Fantasy—
Robert E. Howard

From ancient, fabled Cimmeria he came
With sword uplifted, on that bloody day,
To join the beaten forces in the fray,
And triumphant refuse eternal fame.
Men trembled at the mention of his name,
And humbly stepped aside to make his way.
“You are our King,” they said; he answered “Nay.”
And left them wondering what could be his aim.

I saw him then, and I still see him now,
Cryptically silent—on yon hill’s brow;
Watching with brooding eyes the scene below
Where flame the earth and sky in scarlet glow,
He grasps his curious staff in mighty hands—
And strides into the dusk . . . toward other lands.

 —Emil Petaja

Many years later, Petaja would write of his poems to Lovecraft and Howard:

[The Lost Dream] and The Warrior, dedicated to Robert E. Howard, were written as impulsive expressions of my youthful admiration, before these two remarkable writers quit this vale of critics [...] (ADAS i-ii)

Petaja goes on to quote from Howard’s first letter, and wrote: “Deserved or not, it was of course letters like this which bolstered my determination to become a writer.” (ADAS ii) While he does not mention the impact the death of Howard or Lovecraft had on him, Petaja would write of the 1937 period:

[...] the little tendrils I'd shot out plantwise, in the form of letters to fellow science fiction fans and writers, began to tug me away from my studies. "Travel a bit!" invisible voices urged me. "See what is over yon hill!"
            So I went to Seattle. I met a few artists and writers. More than ever I longed to write. I trekked to San Francisco. It ignored me. Los Angeles.
            I liked the balmy weather and palmy scenery, and guessed I'd stay a while. I found a job. I worked out in Hollywood, at the Technicolor Corp., for quite a while.
(“Meet the Authors” Amazing Stories Jun 1943)

Of course, Petaja did become a writer, fulfilling Robert E. Howard’s prophesy, and would go on to publish a number of stories of science fiction, and a series of heroic fantasy novels based on the Kalevala: Saga of Lost Earths (1966), The Star Mill (1966), The Stolen Sun (1967), and Tramontane (1967). In Seattle, Petaja met and became close friends with Hannes Bok; in Los Angeles he and Bok shared an apartment from 1937-1938 (which is why Petaja’s fifth letter in “The Eyrie,” in the Apr 1938 Weird Tales is addressed from Hollywood). Petaja would go on to become a writer go on to found the Bokanalia Foundation, to preserve the memory and promote the work of his close friend.

A brief correspondence, a rubbing-of-elbows in fanzines, the gift of a manuscript and a sonnet. Emil Petaja would write no lengthy memoir of Robert E. Howard, though he would cherish his letters, and Howard’s poem “Cimmeria” survives because Petaja preserved the copy sent to him. (GL 510) That poem is read—in many languages—each year at Robert E. Howard Days, on the porch of the Robert E. Howard House & Museum. A tradition that could only exist because of the dedication of one of Howard’s first fans—Emil Petaja.

ADAS  As Dream and Shadow
CL       Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda)
ES       Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (2 vols.)
FF        The Fantasy Fan
GL       The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 2: Grim Lands
LFLB   Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel, and Nils Frome
LRB     Letters to Robert Bloch and Others
OFF     O Fortunate Floridian! The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert H. Barlow
OWA   One Who Walked Alone

SL        Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols.)

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