Mystic Chords of Memory and the Melancholy Tune Thereof

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Mary Emmaline Reed is sharing her childhood memories of Alabama around 1865 with her granddaughter’s new swain, specifically the depredations of the locust-outdoing “riff-raff” that showed up soon after the Union Army:

Bob lunged forward in his chair. He’d hung on every word, and now he reacted physically. It is one thing to read history, but it’s altogether different to talk with someone who remembered. “And there was nothing you could do about it?” His voice was venomous against the injustice.

“Well,” Mammy mused, “yes and no. There was a little bit of help.”

“Help?” Bob picked up the word quickly. And though I’d heard the story many times, tonight, it was new again. Bob’s interest, his emotion, his deepest attention to Mammy while she talked, made me participate in the story.

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Yet Another Drive-By Pathography

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(Steve Trout should require next-to-no introduction at this site: a REHupan since the palaeozoic period, contributor to Don Herron’s The Barbaric Triumph: A Critical Anthology on the Writings of Robert E. Howard, and the researcher who stood athwart the expurgationist history of the Donald M. Grant Solomon Kane editions and cried “Stop!” Here he shows us why, to take liberties with the title of a Thomas Ligotti novella, Our Work Is Not Yet Done)

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad (*Disclaimer — [redacted], if you read this your head will probably explode*)

by Steve Trout

Recently my brother sent me the book of this title by one E. Randall Floyd of Augusta State University — who happens to be, unbeknownst to me, a syndicated newspaper columnist as well — which is a collection of short biographies of American characters subtitled “Some Weird People in American History”. The accounts of Ambrose Bierce, Madame Blavatsky, Colonel John Chivington, George A. Custer, Marie Laveau, H.P. Lovecraft, Bernard McFadden, Cotton Mather, William Walker, Sarah Winchester, and others, should be of some interest to my readers for various obscure cultural ties to Howard, but of prime interest, of course, is that Floyd devotes a section to Robert E. Howard as well: “The Tortured Genius Who Walked Alone”. Guess which one Howard is — Good, Bad, or Mad?

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In Defense of Hester Jane Ervin Howard

Dwell for a moment, Dear Reader, on a subject you might never have considered: the practical circumstances surrounding the writing of your own biography, well after the fact of your death and the deaths of all those who knew you best and cared for you most.

The biographer in question would have to conduct interviews with scores of people who knew you little or not at all, and hang on their every word, granting such threadbare testimony an out-sized respect. Think back to your early years in school or in the workplace, to the myriad faces and personalities whom you recall at this late date only in occasional snatches of memory fogged by the passing of decades. How many of their names can you remember? How many conversations? Could you be trusted to give a biographer the rundown on the personality and family of one of your ex-coworkers or fellow students? Could they be trusted to describe your life and family?

If a biographer did some Google searches on the Internet and drudged up everything you’ve written online, and if he managed to score a copy of all of the e-mails you’ve written and saved, would he have an accurate picture of what you felt and thought? Would he be able to chart the often massive changes in your thinking about religion, politics, family, friends, career, art, or anything else you care to name? Could he judge the times you were being purposefully untruthful, or masking your true thoughts in deference to someone’s feelings? Would the vast amount of e-mails you failed to archive have provided a radically different picture of your life?

In my case, I am left thinking, “My God, if someone wrote a biography about me someday, utilizing a selection of emails and the few stories remembered by neighbors and classmates and co-workers and friends and enemies, what an outrageous passel of lies and out-of-context guesses it would be!” Everything I’ve ever written anywhere could be taken as gospel, What Leo Thought, The Truth, The Facts, without regard to changing times and the wisdom and reevaluations of age. People I didn’t even know that well — or worse, people I despised and who despised me back! — would each become a trusted arbiter on my life and reputation. Every independently verifiable “fact” could be combined and extrapolated in a monstrous whole that scarcely resembled reality.

It’s a terrifying and sobering thought.

In Howard scholarship, with our intellect and reason tempered by decades of bitter experiences at the hands of sloppy and malicious forefathers, we have grown more and more careful about taking things at face value. We sift through all the available data and take into account all of the vagaries and caprice inherent in a biographical record, in a way that to the best of our ability “does REH right.” That’s not to say we make things up or paint him in an idyllic light with a halo around his head. It means we try to balance the facts with the intent that hums beneath them, and leaven the concoction with a strong helping of the Time and Place in which they occurred. The strides we’ve made in balancing the Howardian record as a result of these ministrations is plain to see.

But in the rush to do right by Howard, there has been a conspicuous lack of interest in doing right by his parents. Both Mother and Father loom large in the story of Howard’s life, and yet the two have been routinely demonized as bickering, jealous, damaged, awful parents, who bear a large measure of responsibility for Howard’s depression and suicide. His Mother especially has been snowed under by accusations of quietly demented witchery. For years I’ve grown increasingly sensitive to the methods used to accomplish this. It’s much the same sort of sleight-of-hand that was employed against Howard’s memory for so long, but in Dr. and Mrs. Howard’s case — with much less biographical meat to work with — it is far easier to carry out and far harder to combat. It’s gotten so bad that a few years ago Steve Tompkins opined to me that trying to humanize Hester Howard would at this late date be “fiendishly difficult,” like trying to rehabilitate “Grendel’s mother.” Given the amount of garbage that has made it into print, it’s hard to argue with such pessimism. “Has there ever been a pro-Hester faction, aside from REH himself?” Steve asked me at the time.

The answer to that question, it may surprise you to learn, is yes. I’m pro-Hester, and after ten years of study have come to believe that the rap on her is every bit as luridly overblown as the worst myths about REH. Various stories and opinions have their place, sure — but what proof do we really have that Howard’s mother was the monster she is portrayed as? Annie Newton and other catty neighbors and relatives with apparent grudges didn’t have much good to say about any of the Howards in interviews prepared by L. Sprague de Camp for Dark Valley Destiny, although to get a better read on the true context of those interviews they will have to be released in full someday. In One Who Walked Alone Novalyne Price Ellis appears to have faithfully recorded events, yet too often she can be seen to interpret them with frightening naiveté, as when she flippantly told REH to solve his problems by shaving his mustache when he was teetering on the brink of despond, and when she wondered why Mrs. Howard couldn’t just jump up and be as self sufficient as her own Mammy (earth to Miss Price: your Mammy wasn’t dying). E. Hoffmann Price’s outrageous ego and penchant for BS is hard to trust, especially when his retellings of the same stories got progressively weirder and more anti-REH over the years, as the dead Texan’s reputation began to far exceed his own.

Set against that thin gruel you have some stubborn facts. Hester spent many of her first thirty-four years selflessly taking care of sick relatives, in the process forgoing the happiness of marriage and contracting the illness that would kill her thirty years later. (gee…I wonder where REH got his notions about caring for ill family members from?) According to her step-sisters and relatives she was beloved by that entire side of the family, known and revered for her many kindnesses. Her funeral attracted mourners from several states. Others report that she had many friends all across Texas and when healthy would visit them as often as she could. Until her health failed she helped her husband with his medical practice, running various machines and other apparatus. She enjoyed attending church and picnics and festivals in town, and was remembered by Price and other guests and friends as a gracious host.

Mrs. Howard infused in her son a passion for poetry, ancestry, and the history of the Southwest. She always believed in him, prodded him forward, wrote letters to the magazines he wrote for, yelled at the neighbors when they complained about his typewriter clacking away at all hours of the night, and protected his writing time from intrusions. Through most of his adult life REH went wherever he wanted and did whatever he wanted with no mind-control or withering disapproval that friends remember. The only evidence we have of REH staying close to home is in Ellis’ book, in the last two years when Hester Howard’s health had become critical. Common sense and imagination hint at a hidden reality too nasty for Novalyne’s youthful self-centeredness to allow for: night sweats, puke and sputum, gross incontinence, IVs and drainage tubes, moaning, crying, delirium. Yet even during those years Bob went to New Mexico with Truett Vinson and made other trips as opportunities warranted. At the time Ellis was fairly consumed by her romantic fits of pique, but in the real world REH was acting more mature and had his priorities straight. And Ellis and others thought Mrs. Howard was faking to get her son’s attention, but she’d have to be pretty dedicated at this ruse in order to create gallons of fluid in her abdomen that needed to be drained, and then later to up and die. In the final analysis, her detractors were wrong: she hadn’t been faking the severity of her illness, she had been dying a miserable and painful death all along.

Some of the gossipy stories about the Howard marriage may have a factual basis, but accurate context is key. Annie Newton’s incessantly catty anecdotes are offset by those of Bob and Marie Baker and Norris Chambers, all of whom I personally interviewed and pressed and pressed on these points, and who each gave essentially the same story: Dr. Howard was loud and boisterous (in an entertaining rather than boorish way, people loved his personality) and frequently said things in mock anger as a joke, but it was abundantly clear that he loved his wife and son dearly. For instance, de Camp and one of his interviewees believed that Isaac calling Hester “Heck” was an insult, but the people I interviewed maintained strongly that it was a term of endearment. None of the people I have interviewed recall a single instance of him truly insulting his wife in their presence; all stressed his deep love and respect for her.

These stories fit in neatly with those stubborn facts: REH’s father provided heroic care to his wife in her final years, carting her all across the state for various treatments, hiring at-home nurses, and calling in favors from doctors throughout the area. When his wife and son died he was devastated, couldn’t stay at the house for months, burst into tears regularly for weeks, and for years afterwards agonized over their graves and whether they should be moved to a nicer cemetery, going so far as to drag Norris Chambers on numerous exploratory excursions to graveyards in different parts of the state. What many Howard fans call Dr. Howard’s greed and opportunism in the aftermath of their deaths I call due vigilance from a grieving father who had heard his son rail at cheap thieving editors for years, and who didn’t like playing the fool for anyone. If he was too paranoid and angry in those early months, so be it — he was an old, beaten, devastated man doing his best by his son’s memory in a field he had no experience in. A certain amount of defensiveness and frustration was to be expected, and in my opinion any attempt to call him greedy based on a few dunning letters and court records would show a profound lack of imagination and empathy.

One of the de Camp stories that bothers me most is where Hester Howard laments that her husband’s mother “just won’t die!” as if she wanted her mother-in-law to expire. We’ll never know if she said such a thing out of pity, genuinely wanting the woman to finally be relieved of her pain, or if she said it as an ill-considered joke that was meant to be lighthearted but clanged off the rim, or indeed if she even said it at all. It’s quite hard for me to imagine someone treating others so kindly for so many years, only to turn into a snake once married. I’ve heard my mother and father make such jokes lightheartedly in front of my nonagenarian grandmothers for years, and I wonder if other, more tight-laced people listening in would be quietly appalled, even as my grandmothers laughed up a storm.

Steve once mentioned to me that it is worth considering why there is an almost complete lack of Mother-figures in Howard’s work. Is that big black hole where the hero’s mother should be indicative of some parental neurosis? Perhaps…but examples of stories lacking any mention of the hero’s mother are legion, and — thinking specifically of the pulp jungle — the last thing readers wanted was some old lady taking screen time away from the hero and damsel in distress. Those Brundage covers would start getting pretty scary. Besides, REH never seemed comfortable writing about anyone not focused through his prism of hate and feud. Woman and children frequently got short shrift throughout his work except when they could be leveraged as appealing victims or vengeance-deliverers. Howard’s work is thematically focused more than most authors, often to the exclusion of all else, and hence often lacks much of the peaceful, mundane, familial aspects of life. Mothers are just one example of that. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Rather than being tricked or forced into an unholy love for his mother, REH looked on his mom as a hero based on the facts on the ground: tales about her hard frontier youth, her many sacrifices to help her family, her unflagging support of his hopes and dreams, and the stoic grace she displayed while suffering and dying while the town around them jeered that she was faking it for attention. I can well understand how both mother and son grew bitter and introverted in the face of the condescension that Cross Plains residents had for expatriates from Burkett and Cross Cut (something Marie Baker in particular hammered home to me), just as Brownwood in turn looked down on the people from Cross Plains. Howard knew his mother had always wanted a better, more urbane life, and as old age and sickness dragged her inexorably away from that possibility and towards death, his rage at the unfairness of black fate grew exponentially, eventually eating away at him until all that was left was bleak resignation. None of this demands that Howard be a slave to his mother or her whims, or that she be a Machiavellian terror.

Had REH really been in a love-hate relationship with his mother, wouldn’t true confidants such as Tevis Clyde Smith or Novalyne Price have heard plenty about it in some shape or form? All we have is REH patiently explaining his true situation to Novalyne again and again: how his mother was a damn good woman in his eyes for all the reasons explicated above, how her sickness forced him into massive responsibilities that harried him but which he nevertheless felt obligated to fulfill, and how his Dad was doing the best he could as well. His frustration that Novalyne can’t get her head around his true relationship with his mother, and indeed Mrs. Howard’s true nature, is palpable.

I can reasonably accept that, like her son, Mrs. Howard could be cold or standoffish, especially as she got sicker, and that she wanted to live in a different town and have nice things and mannered friends. I’ll agree that when faced with a young, headstrong, demanding girl pouncing on her son after years of the status quo, she very well might have treated Price with icy distrust and feared for her son’s writing career and happiness, not to mention her own needs. I can grant that like all families they had yelling matches and fights, albeit ones that probably sounded to outsiders a lot worse than they were. But all of this is well within the range of the average family, especially when Hester’s sickness and REH’s odd career are factored in.

But listen to how L. Sprague de Camp routinely took positive stories about the Howards and twisted them into the nightmare portrait he was trying to create. Throughout the book he railed at “the small deceptions that they practiced to satisfy their need to be thought well of…small fictions maintained by the family, which, taken together, gave young Robert a distorted view of reality…an unsettling conceptual chaos…a sense of chaos tantamount to world destruction…isolated and so deprived of the normalizing functions of social interaction…overprotection of his parents…few experiences with the real world…Hester Jane’s sense of inadequacy…her feelings of rejection and dependence…personal unhappiness and conflict…people who lack adequate techniques for coping with their environment…a kind of infantile despair, which resulted in a flight from adult responsibilities…” This only covers a few pages of a biography awash in such judgments.

The problem de Camp had was all of the people that loved and admired Hester. Any testimony about a vibrant, laughing, normal woman needed to be neutralized. Thus we have passages such as the following (de Camp’s sleight-of-hand in bold): “Ambivalent though she must have felt about her father’s new wife, Hester Jane was too dependent to be openly hostile. She got on well with her stepmother and readily took on the role of assistant mother.” Note the shell game at play here: de Camp has just turned the factual reality of getting along well with her stepmother into proof that she was secretly hostile to that same stepmother. The truth is that she “got on well with her stepmother” — that is what de Camp was told by his interviewees. But that wouldn’t give him an easy explanation for Howard’s suicide, so that truth has to be covered in rhetorical manure and the jungle moss of psychological speculation.

Here’s another gem from Dark Valley Destiny: “During her pregnancy, Hessie was all smiles and laughter, forever joking with her neighbors, but she never left her husband’s side. She traveled with Dr. Howard wherever he went. Her fear, and the dependency it generated, must have been enormous and unquestionably carried over into her relationship with her son.

So again, the facts on the ground — given to de Camp by the testimony of his interviewees — was that Hester “was all smiles and laughter, forever joking with her neighbors.” That she traveled with her husband “wherever he went” may be factual, too, but any speculation as to why she did so is just that. Given her “smiles and laughter,” could not the reason be something other than “fear” and “dependency”? Just maybe? Hmmmmm?

De Camp was an expert at taking gossamer personal opinion and spinning it out into a base for portraying REH and his family as a seething cauldron of resentment. Try this one on for size: “Long and frequent dislocations, such as Hester Jane had experienced, do not make for happy wives or relaxed mothers. Thus, it must have been a strained and uncertain if beautiful bride whom Dr. I. M. Howard took to wife.” The “long and frequent dislocations” de Camp is talking about are the occasional travels Hester made between various members of her family, often with the purpose of caring for sick relatives. Elsewhere in the book, de Camp admits about that same family, “As each little half-sister arrived, Hester Jane became her loving companion and was always remembered with warmth and gratitude. They all came to Hester Jane’s funeral, bringing with them their abundant loyalty and honest grief. They were charming people, these Ervins, and their graciousness and courtesy were part of Robert Howard’s heritage, too.” And yet given all of that, he nevertheless feels justified in assuming that Hester Howard going to live with these “loving” relatives, who recalled her with “warmth and gratitude,” must have left Hester feeling “strained and uncertain”! De Camp does this so oily and glibly because without making these audacious leaps of cause-and-effect, boldly integrating them seamlessly into the record, the conclusions he draws about Hester’s malignant hold on her son would turn to dust. Multiply these invented scandals by a few hundred times, and you can begin to see how the old science fiction grandmaster’s Dark Valley Destiny research — and especially his relentlessly jejune, quasi-psychological interpretations of it all — have over time achieved a subliminally canonical presence in the field.

(As an aside, flipping through the various biographies, what’s with the overwhelming preference for referring to REH as “Robert,” or the even more infuriating “young Robert,” like a scolding parent admonishing a pouting child? The man’s name was H-O-W-A-R-D, Bob to his friends, and the respectful thing to do — as a quick reading of most any biography or newspaper article will attest — is to refer to him by his last name as a general matter of course, with less-formal designations being brought in as the need for variety dictates. I can’t help but recall Howard’s plaint to his friends, “Why do youse bastards keep calling me Robert?” spoken after they had apparently been teasing him for a spell by repeatedly and deliberately using his formal first name.)

Most galling to me is the now-ubiquitous idea that REH was a suicide because his parents raised him as a misfit from the Island of Lost Toys, that their awfulness damaged him in his youth and set him on the highway to hell. REH deserves the courtesy of being confronted as an educated, mature, free-willed adult, one who made his own decisions and fought his own demons as a man. And his parents don’t deserve to be saddled with a reputation as suicidally unpleasant ogres because their adult son killed himself. He died at thirty, not thirteen.

My conviction is that REH was an adult, a man. He went as he pleased, did what he wanted, is even on record as cussing out his Dad in front of his friend when he needed the car. He had been insinuating suicide for years without ever actually trying it, arguing with friends that it was a valid way to check out and writing eerie, almost loving poems about it. After ten years of dealing with Bob the Loner, Bob the Gloomy Grump, how many people in his social circle were convinced he was faking his level of despair, the same way people had erroneously assumed his mother was faking the illness that killed her? Today, we’ve been inundated with studies and news items urging us to take all such warning signs deadly serious and call a hotline…but then?

Add to that REH’s craftiness (all too common in determined suicides), tricking his Dad by first putting him at ease and then suddenly doing the deed before his mother had died. Might Howard have similarly reassured his Mother while she was conscious, promising he wouldn’t act rashly, all the while fully set on going through with it once she was so far gone that she “would never recognize him again”? And if he did trick her in this way, could she be faulted for thinking her attempts to dissuade him from suicide had succeeded? And what exactly does this say about him being tied to her apron strings? Go to some suicide websites. Read the stories. Howard’s death isn’t some weirdo thing, it’s all too common in all of its tragic “woulda-coulda-shoulda” particulars. Suicides leave behind dazed loved ones who only in hindsight are able to piece together all the clues, leaving them consumed with guilt at their inability to prevent the act.

I also am increasingly convinced that the stories of his parents shielding REH from Life — the death of his dog Patch, et cetera — have been grossly exaggerated and misconstrued. From a fairly early age REH was depressed, often spoke of killing himself, and argued passionately for the philosophical right to do so. Far from causing his behavior by always keeping their son safe and isolated from reality, could they not have been presented with this inexplicable, frightening logic, and then began trying their level best to dissuade him from his stated goal, to the degree that they even believed he was serious? Happens all the time — good kids and adults, raised well and living in good homes, becoming horribly depressed and then killing themselves without apparent reason, leaving the parents helpless, confused, worried, and ultimately devastated and asking “Why?”

All of this makes far more sense than the theorizing about how his parents weirdly and craftily molded him into a pampered recluse unable to deal with the world. Depression of all kinds and causes can pave the way to suicide when it becomes so great and ubiquitous that the fear of dying becomes less of a horror than the pain of living in mental agony. Far from being the catalyst for opening the door and pushing him towards it, if anything the love and support from his family seems to have been one of the only things that kept him from pulling the trigger much earlier, that helped to hold the demons at bay. It was when that love and support threatened to crumble and vanish, with nothing — no “great love or great cause” — to take its place, that he decided “the game wasn’t worth the candle.” No hard proof one way or the other (there rarely is with suicides) but when you read the stories of other people doing the same thing, it all fits Howard like a glove. His suicide strikes me as typical, amazingly so, almost pedestrian. Artistic vocations attract depressed people unsatisfied with the Real World, and such people disproportionately commit suicide. At some point, it becomes silly to blame people’s parents for the actions of their adult lives.

Look over Wikipedia’s List of Famous Suicides. That’s a lot of wicked mothers working overtime! My conviction is that ultimately people are responsible for their own destructive impulses, whether they are thirty-somethings like Howard, Michael Hutchence, or Peter Ham from Badfinger, or sixty-somethings like Hemingway or George Sanders or Hunter Thompson. Depression is by far the deadliest killer on that list, not mothers. If Mrs. Howard had been hitting REH with hangers his whole childhood, that might be a different story. But coddling Howard into the grave? By using such criminally abusive tactics as making him wear clean white shirts to school, forbidding him from playing football, exposing him to things like poetry, and not passing along phone messages? Oh the horror!

I’ve said before that conscientious biographers can’t rely solely on first- or secondhand stories and papers dug up and arranged like so many butterflies coated in formaldehyde and pinned into scrapbooks. The corpses might be colorful and even anatomically correct, but so much of the life and beauty of the creature is lost, and can only be gained by seeing one alive and in flight. Where a biography is concerned, especially when the person in question has left scant evidence of the fullness of their personality, you have to also look at the Big Picture and use copious amounts of imagination and common sense. A more sympathetic and understanding analysis of the Howard family shows three people who cared deeply about one another and stayed together until the end despite being wracked by tragedies that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. There is a place for the negative stories, yes — but they deserve to be accompanied by the other side of the coin, the laudable familial bonds that held the Howards together throughout their lives. These things should be relayed not in the minimalist, grudging, giving-the-devil-her-due fashion de Camp and his ideological soulmates employ, but with a full-throated and generous magnanimity.

Hester Howard was a woman of uncommon strength and dedication to family, one remembered by many as a laughing and loving woman, a good friend and genial host, courageous in the face of illness and death, a lover of poetry and fine things, a lady in the truest and most noble sense of the word. Some families even named their daughters after her, such was the depth of the admiration of her friends. She is not responsible for the adult despondency and suicide of her son — it’s clear that Robert E. Howard adored his mother, and her fatal illness filled him not with resentment but with an unutterable sadness about the horrors of old age inflicted by a heartless, cruel world. She deserves to be remembered far more charitably than she has been. Until such time as she is, this little blog post and my occasional prayers to her memory will have to do.

MARK ADDS:
While I have no desire to intrude on Leo’s excellent post, I do feel compelled to answer, at least for myself, his question regarding bibliographic nomenclature. I made the decision in the rough draft of Blood & Thunder to call Robert by his first name to eliminate possible confusion between any of the other members of the Howard family, or even Howard Phillips Lovecraft. It was for clarity’s sake, and not a rebuke in any way, that I furthermore decided to invoke his parents’ first names, as well. Doing so made them stand out and made the narrative easier to follow. That was my only intent.

The (Not So) Annihilated Shadow

Guest blogger Gary Romeo writes in to respond to some of the criticisms TC blogger [redacted] leveled at both Gary and L. Sprague de Camp in Mark’s previous post. Here’s Gary:

“By the 1920s, Leon Trotsky had been labeled by Stalin as an enemy of the Soviet State. He had all memory of Leon eliminated after Trotsky’s exile, turning Leon into what has subsequently been called ‘the annihilated shadow’.”

The Secret Life of Leon Trotsky — Robert Elias

“Trotsky ended up being almost like Stalin’s imaginary friend. You know, that imaginary friend some of us had as kids, the one you could blame stuff on.”

The Sheila Variations — Sheila O’Malley

The editors at Wandering Star had sought to eliminate de Camp. In their various book introductions the editors would refer to “several critics,” “schools of thought,” and “some observers.” De Camp’s name was being systemically eliminated from any Robert E. Howard discussion. Even when appropriating de Camp’s idea that Howard’s youthful stay in that Texas area known as Dark Valley became the source for Cimmeria, they refused to mention his name. Patrice Louinet later confessed: “there is absolutely no denying de Camp made the Cimmeria/Dark Valley connection before me. Not acknowledging this fact — the anteriority of the link, not the so-called borrowing — was an editorial decision on my part. De Camp […] was not gonna be in this book, period.”

But de Camp did not disappear so easily. [redacted] has resurrected him to be the person of blame for every criticism of Robert E. Howard.

The latest critic to have been tainted by the Sprague Virus, according to Mark, is Arnold Fenner. I feel compelled to do another “Nuh Uh!” to Mark’s “Waaah. Waaah.”

First off, Mark tells us the book is a mere eight stories for $100. The cost for the two Wandering Star Conan volumes was over $400, and they don’t comprise a complete set either. Mark was apparently unaware that there is a mass market hardcover available from Amazon for a mere $16.50.

Like Mark, I am bewildered by the tack that Fenner chose to take. It is obvious that Howard fans today want all praise and glory, and have no stomach for insights that are not wholly complimentary. Why Fenner wrote what he did will have to explained by Fenner, but they are not the same observations made by de Camp. Mark implies that Fenner got his information from reading The Miscast Barbarian. Lets look at it.

One issue Fenner seems to have a beef with is Howard fans, like Sprague de Camp, who try to emphasize Howard’s toughness. De Camp says in The Miscast Barbarian that “by the time Robert entered the Cross Plains High School, Howard was a large, powerful youth. When fully grown, he was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed around 200 pounds, most of it muscle.” Fenner writes “photographs of Robert show him as an unscarred, well-fed, and not terribly muscular young man.” If Fenner read The Miscast Barbarian he certainly disagrees with de Camp.

Fenner brings up Howard’s mention of enemies. This most likely comes from Fenner remembering the scene where Novalyne Price spots Robert’s gun while they are driving in his car as much as anything de Camp wrote.

Mark is on firmer ground when quoting Fenner about the suicide and Howard’s attachment to his mother. But there are other sources than de Camp for all this. There is Novalyne’s book and movie, as mentioned before. And de Camp was not the only one writing of Howard’s attachment to his mother and focusing on the suicide in the early 60s and 70s. Glenn Lord wrote in an introduction to the Bear Creek stories that “An excessive devotion to his mother proved to be his Achilles’ heel.” And every issue of The Howard Collector ended with the Howard death verse, “All fled, all done…”

By the end of Mark’s critique even he realizes Fenner is disagreeing with de Camp on major issues. “Howard’s use of poetical style is well documented by nearly everyone who’s written critically of the man in the past two decades (even de Camp noted it…),” says Mark in response to another Fenner criticism.

The same is true for most critics of Robert Howard. They disagree with de Camp. Let’s look at three commonly quoted critics. Sam Lundwall, Franz Rottensteiner, and Stephen King.

Lundwall’s book Science Fiction: What it’s All About quotes de Camp’s defense of Sword-and-Sorcery and his stress on the genre’s entertainment value. Lundwall states:

After having delivered this unabashed praise to escapism, de Camp goes on to note the renewed interest in Heroic Fantasy and in this respect he is undoubtedly right. Old classics are reissued by the score together with new stories of blood, thunder and well-sharpened swords. The spectrum goes from the gentle novels of James Branch Cabell to the sadistic tales of Robert E. Howard… however, looking at the state of the world — the real world — today. I can well believe there are some deeper reasons too. There was a similar interest in heroes and mighty deeds in Hitler’s Germany.

Lundwall is clearly stating that his opinion is different, by a large degree, than de Camp’s. De Camp’s view is that it is all good escapism. Lundwall is making an argument that the violent nature is not just escapism. Lundwall is saying REH is dangerous fascist-inducing stuff. So saying that this critic is influenced by de Camp is clearly wrong.

Later, Lundwall again quotes de Camp to disagree. Lundwall quotes de Camp, “[S&S provides] the reader with a heroic model with whom he for a moment can identify himself…” Lundwall’s rebuttal, “As far as entertainment goes, I can’t see anything wrong with this. Though I still dislike the over-emphasis on violence.”

So even though Lundwall later mentions the suicide, he is not doing it as a mindless drone hypnotized by de Campian propaganda. He is disagreeing with de Camp on fundamental points.

Franz Rottensteiner is another case. His The Fantasy Book quotes another de Camp defense of Sword-and-Sorcery. Rottensteiner follows the de Camp quote with a dismissive, “Apologists of this kind of entertainment trace its development back through Eric Rucker Eddison and Lord Dunsany to William Morris…. But in fact it is not even the debilitated offspring of these sagas, but rather a misbegotten child of our own technological civilization, offering a quick escape from an oppressive world.” Rottensteiner, like Lundwall, is disagreeing with de Camp to a large degree. De Camp never talked about fascist underpinnings or escaping from an “oppressive world,” just a mundane one. These guys have their own axes to grind, that are clearly different from de Camp’s views.

Stephen King is no de Campian-influenced fan of the genre either. King in Danse Macabre says “This kind of fiction, commonly called ‘sword & sorcery’ by its fans, is not fantasy at its lowest, but it still has a tacky feel….” He then goes on, “The only writer who really got away with this sort of stuff was Robert E. Howard….” Then, “Howard overcame the limitations of his puerile material by the force and fury of his writing…” Then comes the truncated Del Rey quote: “Stories such as “The People of the Black Circle” glow with the fierce and eldritch light of his frenzied intensity. At his best, Howard was the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy, and most of his Conan tales seem to almost fall over themselves in their need to get out.” But King follows that with, “Yet his other work was either unremarkable or just abysmal….”

By pointing out that de Camp is not always to blame for a critic’s negative appraisal of Howard (among other things) I have been labeled by the de Camp bashers as a decampista. It is as fine a label as any, but please don’t forget that I (and Steve Allsup) are REH fans first and foremost. I am not a fanatical de Camp fan. I like him well enough and enjoy his work but, hell, remember I forgot his birthday!

Mark makes a final plea that publishers should only hire admiring critics like Rusty Burke, himself, or others cut from the same cloth to write introductions to Robert E. Howard material. In other words, a stifling of thought, sameness, is preferred over anything that might veer from the current orthodoxy. Mark ends by basically issuing a boycott of the product. Paradox holds the Conan/Robert E. Howard franchise these days and would most likely agree on a boycott of these public-domain publications. But they should be wary of a fandom that calls for sameness and rigidity in all things related to Robert E. Howard.

“Northern Woods,” Eastern Frontier, and a Very Young Southwesterner

For me at least, The Last of the Trunk has been a case of punch-drunk love. For hundreds of pugilistic pages the book reads like the revenge of [redacted] and the other members of the Boxer Rebellion who for the past ten years have busied themselves overthrowing the previous hegemony of the heroic fantasy and historical adventure stories in Howard studies. That the 2007 grab-bag might well have been entitled The Last, All in Trunks shouldn’t be surprising; as Patrice Louinet points out in his introduction, the Boom-era fanziners and small-pressers who cherry-picked Howard’s outtakes and leavings were hunting the sworded and the creature-featured.

That having been said, we do get away from ringside every so often. In “The Brand of Satan” the tiger-souled Brand Kenmara anticipates what Conan accomplishes in Afghulistan and Francis Xavier Gordon avoids or averts in Afghanistan:

Here in the foothills [of India], I built a vast outlaw band, composed of natives, wandering tribesmen from the Northern plains, and renegades of almost every nation. My band grew in numbers until it almost assumed the proportions of an army. I beat off English troops sent into the hills after me, and what was much more difficult, defeated a confederation of Ghurkha chiefs.

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Photosynthesis Redux

A few months ago I posted an analysis of the photo of Robert E. Howard posed near Galveston with his father and two members of the Chambers family, Dr. Solomon Chambers and his daughter Deoma. When we left off, I was intending to get a scan of the original photo from Solomon Chambers’ son, Norris, along with a scan of the writing on the back of the picture. Here, then, is an update.

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The scans Norris sent me aren’t very good, owing to the brightness and contrast apparently being adjusted by the scanner. Nevertheless, there is more detail here than in the best copy of the photo known to date, the one Glenn made of this same original years ago:

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Note the nice color tinting on the original photo, and the increased detail in Dr. Howard’s suit and REH’s pants over Glenn’s copy, as well as the details on the ground and in the grass. It appears that the writing that is on Glenn’s was added after he made his copy — or else he made his copy from another copy of the original, one with writing on it — for the original has no writing on the front at all. This original looks a bit worse for wear than the one Glenn copied — the lower left corner is now missing. Unlike other Howard photos I have hunted down the originals for (such as the three photos stored at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley), there is no significant difference in cropping between these two.

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On the back you can see that someone scrawled some basic information about the photo: “Robert Howard — about 12 yrs / Dr. Howard / Dr. Chambers / Deoma Chambers / in Feb 1918 near / Alta Loma Tx — in Galveston Co. / Tex Chambers Home burned at / sight [sic]” At least I think it says “burned.”

So who wrote this inscription? One of the Chambers family, or one of the Howards? I guess some handwriting analysis will have to be applied by someone with examples from all the primary suspects.

I’ve been doing some more poking around looking for original Howard photos. The pics I would most like to find are the ones Tevis Clyde Smith used in his self-published books on Brown County (Pecan Valley Days, Frontier’s Generation, etc.). But I e-mailed Tom Munnerlyn, who had handled TCS’s papers after he died, and he referred me to Roy Barkley, the heir to Smith’s effects. Roy says the REH shots were not among Tevis’ belongings at his death, and he has no idea where the originals are. Perhaps some distant relative inherited a photo album containing them, or perhaps they are truly lost. If so, that’s a blow. Some of those photos are among the best images of Howard on record, and it would be wonderful to see the originals in all their detail and glory.

At some point we have to hunt down the heirs for Truett Vinson and see if they have any letters or photos. I can’t help but think that they must, that although Truett refused to talk about REH at the end of his life he still may have quietly retained some items of interest. There’s just too much biographical research to still undertake, and not enough people on the trail of the ghosts.

Howard’s last Valentine’s Day

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In the spring of 1936, with the specter of his own end closing in on him, Howard nevertheless found time to send his favorite gal-pal Novalyne Price some Valentine cheer, in the form of a touching, rather remarkable letter. It began with, and managed to sustain, a smile-inducing level of good humor, from the first sentence:

Dear Novalyne:

I heard yesterday you had the mumps; now you tell me it’s the itch. I wish you’d make up your mind. In either event, you have my sympathy.

The letter continues in that lighthearted vein (see One Who Walked Alone p. 262-63 for the whole thing) as Howard discusses his mustache:

I noticed your sinister insinuation regarding my whiskers. Shave, in this weather? Do you want to expose me in a practically nude condition to the icy blasts of the Arctic blizzards? They say the Lord tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, but they don’t say anything about Him tempering the wind to the shorn jackass. Perhaps when the gentle heifers — or maybe it’s zephyrs — of summer gambol and frolic lightly through the post oaks I may employ the shears on my rugged countenance, but not in this weather.

The bulk of the letter deals with his spicy story markets, and what style and rules needed to be followed in order to write for them. That is all of great interest, fascinating stuff — but what I found most intriguing was Howard’s comments about his agents, which were notable to me for the way they manage to contradict one of the sillier criticisms of Howard leveled by E. Hoffmann Price. In his at times moving, at times self-serving remembrance of Howard in The Book of the Dead, Price at one point proclaims:

Like many a “natural,” Bob had little market sense; and he dallied far too long in engaging an agent. Indeed, I am far from sure that he ever did have one — Dr. Howard did set Otis Adelbert Kline to work, selling REH’s literary remains. No agent would have let Bob do so much pay on publication work for any outfit which paid as slowly as did the Weird Tales group. A client as talented as REH would have been hustled into the better markets in jig time!

As we of course now know, REH had in fact hired Kline to be his agent years before. And not only that, but in this 1936 Valentine letter he reveals to Novalyne that:

Yes, Kline’s still my agent, and I’m doing a little business with a fellow named Kofoed, of Philadelphia, former editor of Fight Stories, and now editor of Day Book, who does a little agenting for me on the side, much to Kline’s disgust, I fear.

Ha! So far from being the agentless dope with no market sense of Price’s imagination, Howard had two agents playing off each other, competing for his business! And speaking of market sense, when Howard made the deal with Kline he specifically retained the right to submit to Weird Tales himself, as it was a market he had built up all on his own. The significance of this in light of Price’s statement is startling: yes, REH did quit Weird Tales once his western markets were going well, and after he found himself drifting towards western themes and subjects. But think through Price’s boneheaded scenario: REH is remembered not for his westerns but for his Weird Tales work, right? So if he had taken Price’s advice and let Kline talk him out of submitting to WT in “jig time,” say by early 1933, then poof!, there goes Howard’s legacy and main claim to fame, his Conan stories.

So we have Price following the markets with mercenary tunnel vision — and now largely forgotten. While Howard expanded his markets as Price did, but while simultaneously sticking with the lower-paying market that gave him artistic freedom and a forum for his very best work. In doing that, in not always putting money before his Muse, REH created a body of work that has grown magnificently in both popularity and critical esteem over the last century. Methinks Howard could have taught Price a few things about sense.

The sole grave passage in Howard’s Valentine letter concerned, of course, his precipitously failing Mother: “You ask how my mother is getting along. I hardly know what to say. Some days she seems to be improving a little, and other days she seems to be worse. I frankly don’t know.” Alas, he would know, all too soon.

So how did Robert E. Howard wrap up his letter to Novalyne? After all, he had rambled on about the mumps, his mustache, his writing career, spicy stories, his mother. Any talk of the holiday itself? As a matter of fact, there was. But in this, the only record we have of Howard discussing Valentine’s Day, what do we find? Talk of romance? Immortal love? Flowers and chocolates and cupid run amok?

C’mon — this is the creator of Conan we’re dealing with here:

This being Valentine’s Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.

Good old Two-Gun, still reaching for the humor and joy in life even as his own dwindled to its conclusion! With less than four months to live, and with his life slowly disintegrating around him, his letter remains all the more poignant given the circumstances we know were torturing him during that time. “I’ll be seeing you, I hope.” he says somewhat forlornly to Novalyne at the letter’s conclusion. And boy, did he ever.

Only two weeks later, on February 24 1936, Novalyne would submit Howard to a meeting of frankly inexcusable cruelty, taunting him about his mustache while making light of the suffering he was going through over his Mother’s impending death. The record of the conversation in Novalyne’s book is courageous in its refusal to whitewash what happened. “God knows how many nights I haven’t slept,” Howard mourns exhaustedly, while she airily wonders aloud why hiring a nurse couldn’t just fix all those little worries of his right up. “I want to live!” he later exclaims, the ultimate suicide’s cry for help, “I want a woman to love, a woman to share my life and believe in me, to want me and love me. Don’t you know that? My God, my God. Can’t you see that? I want to live and to love.” Faced with this declaration, Novalyne replies with an icy riposte that slams into Howard like a stake through the heart: “Well, shave your mustache and maybe you’ll find one,” prompting Howard to quite understandably stare at his friend in shock and gasp, “My God, you say a thing like that when everything has crashed around me?”

It’s hard to say when Howard snapped, when the last ray of hope shut off in his mind and he resigned himself to the abyss gaping hungrily ahead of him. But to my mind, the nascent Prague Spring created by that Valentine’s Day missive, followed by the crushing events of two weeks later, was as much a fulcrum event as any other, slamming the Gates of Life shut for good.

Sadly, on this — his final Valentine’s Day — Howard remained always and forever, to the bitter end, One Who Walked Alone.

Photosynthesis

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The above photo is well-known to those of us who have read and reread Dark Valley Destiny. In that book, the caption states: “Robert E. Howard, Dr. Isaac M. Howard, Dr. and Mrs. Solomon R. Chambers, Galveston, Texas, probably 1918.” It’s a photo that has always intrigued me, mostly because of the amazing pose REH is caught in, gazing wistfully up at the sky as if daydreaming his first stories, so distracted by the tales floating around in his mind that he can’t bring himself back to reality long enough to pose properly for the photo being taken. Dr. Howard and the Chamberses do their part to make the photo interesting, too, with Isaac standing imperiously and confidently as the nexus of attention while the others almost recoil from the towering man dominating the center of the composition.

Over the years I have been in Howard fandom, I’ve often wondered what the provenance of this photo was. Dark Valley Destiny says:

Late in 1917, Dr. Howard delivered the Chamberses’ new baby, Norris, and thereafter Dr. Chambers became restless. As he had earlier discovered that the active practice of medicine kept him away from home more than he liked, so now he found his duties at the drugstore too confining. After the Armistice of November 11, 1918, he decided to move his family to Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico, and take up truck farming.

Of course, Dark Valley Destiny also calls the newborn Norris “Robert’s schoolmate,” and then debunks one of REH’s childhood memories by saying that schoolmate Norris didn’t remember it, so Howard probably made it up. But as we just read in the DVD excerpt above: Norris was born in 1917, making him a full eleven years younger than Howard, and so couldn’t possibly have been his schoolmate. Call me wild and crazy, but it’s small wonder he didn’t remember anything about the incident Howard wrote of considering he might not have been born yet when it happened.

Until recent years Dark Valley Destiny was the first and only place this photo was published, albeit severely cropped compared to the raw version above. I suppose de Camp got this and most of his other photos from Glenn Lord, who had been patiently hunting down and securing copies of such photos for decades. The copy above is the one Glenn has in his files, with the names written across the top like that. Glenn in turn must have got a copy from Norris, or from one of the other Chamberses.

In June of 2005, Don Herron and I went to White Settlement, Texas and interviewed Norris Chambers at length (the results of which can now be read in TC V3n10, with a further tantalizing excerpt available in V3n6). During the course of that interview I learned that Norris’ sister’s name was Deoma, which immediately set off alarm bells in my mind, because the name written on the photo above also says “Deoma.” Norris’ Mother’s name was Martha. Hmmmm. (in case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of opportunities to say “hmmmm….” in REH scholarship).

When I got home from Texas, I looked up Deoma in the Social Security Death Index, and she is listed under Deoma E. Morgan (according to this genealogical listing on Norris’ website, Lilburn Morgan was her second husband, Lonnie Triplitt was her first). That record tells us that she was born in 1899 and died in 2000 (she was 101 years old!) That would make her around nineteen at the time of the above picture. Hmmmm — come to think of it, the lady (girl?) in that picture has always looked a little young to be the wife of the then fifty-year-old Solomon Chambers (1868-1950).

It appears, then, that de Camp assumed that Deoma Chambers was Mrs. Solomon (Martha) Chambers and wrote his caption accordingly. But now twenty-three years after the fact we finally know that the woman in the picture in not Solomon’s wife but his daughter, and hence Norris’ older sister. Those of you who already own TC V3n10 knew this already, of course — one of the perks of subscribing.

During my interview of Norris in 2005, I asked him whether he had the original of this photo, in the hope that it perhaps had some writing on the back that might pinpoint the date a bit better, or provide any additional information. He said that he didn’t have it and wasn’t sure who did, but he suspected that Deoma’s only daughter Marjorie Leeton — who is 84 years old and still living in Texas, might know where it went off to, along with several other photos Norris recalls were taken with the Howards on that Galveston trip.

Well, I contacted Marjorie, and sure enough she does have the original photo, although there are no others that she is aware of. According to her, the splotches you see on the print reproduced above are there on the original, too, perhaps caused by dripping photo developer or something at the time it was made. And most importantly, on the back of the photo itself is written the names of the subjects along with the following additional information: “Feb 1918 near Alta Loma, Texas.”

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Alta Loma is a very small town in the Galveston area — you can read about its history here at the Handbook of Texas Online. Note that in recent years it’s been swallowed up and incorporated into the larger town of Santa Fe. Cimmerian readers have read all about how the Chamberses moved down there to farm and sell fruit door-to-door. Reading the Handbook of Texas entry brings home how difficult a life that must have been during those years.

So that confirms de Camp’s guess (probably a guess Norris gave him) of “probably 1918.” But it brings up another problem with the dating. If, as de Camp states, the Chamberses didn’t move down to Galveston until “after the Armistice of November 11, 1918,” then how could this photo have been taken the previous February, a full nine months before they moved? Doesn’t make sense. Perhaps they went down on a scouting trip of sorts with the Howards in February? Or perhaps de Camp’s information about them moving in November of 1918 was wrong, and they actually moved a year earlier? Norris sounded a bit vague on exactly when they moved down there, and he himself was far too young to have any memories of the years the family spent down south, so it’s possible he misremembered to de Camp. Someday I’d like to spend enough time at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, where the de Camp papers are kept, to get to the bottom of this and many other mysteries.

I’m having Norris make me a scan of the photo, both sides, so I’ll know more information directly, and will report any updates here. It will be interesting to see how much more detail is in the original photo, if any. I dearly wish the other three or four rumored photos had survived — who knows what they would have shown us? A group photo of the entire Howard trio at that age would be wonderful to see. Maybe they are still out there somewhere, waiting to be found. Stranger things have happened — Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet found the photo of REH outside his house with Patch a mere few years ago, at the house of another old lady who knew the Howards in her youth. I’ve got to get Rusty to write up that interview and experience in The Cimmerian, it’s a doozy of a yarn.

Thank God for people like Norris Chambers and Marjorie Leeton, keepers in their own small way of the Howard flame, both via their memories and by way of a most miraculous photograph.

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The Cat, the Skull, and the Editor

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I’m staring moodily into my alehorn, like one of the Icelandic sagas’ barely socialized wolf’s-heads who can’t be trusted to behave in the skalli, pondering how best to retort on behalf of the disloyal opposition to Leo and Gary’s “If Loving the Lancers Is Wrong, We Don’t Want To Be Right” post. But before getting into that, I want to revisit a conflict of such escalatory excess that the groundskeepers of TC‘s Lion’s Den are still turning up unexploded munitions and unidentified body parts: The Farnsworth Wright War of 2005-2006.

Was Wright not just a good, but a great, editor? Or did he play Cardinal Richelieu in the story of Weird Tales’ Three Musketeers? With his tendency to reject in haste and repent at leisure, was he perhaps born with a unique chromosome, a “C” chromosome to go with his X and Y, that made him more capricious than should have been humanly possible? These questions and more were fought out in the Den, with Don Herron in particular storming the satrap Pharnabazus’ mausoleum to place satchel charge after satchel charge against Farny’s sarcophagus. A passage in Patrice’s Kull: Exile of Atlantis essay “Atlantean Genesis” got me thinking about the whole contretemps:

Howard, in a particularly unprofessional move, didn’t even rewrite his story, making all his changes on his first draft, and retitled the tale The Cat and the Skull, whose “Skull” is an explicit reference to Thulsa Doom. . .The story is rather poor and suffers from a lack of cohesiveness, which is not surprising given the late addition of Thulsa Doom. . .Not surprisingly, the story was rejected by Weird Tales, apparently to Howard’s surprise, if this is indeed the unnamed story he is alluding to in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (p. 133). Undaunted, Howard wrote yet another tale featuring Kull, the second and last featuring Kuthulos, The Screaming Skull of Silence. The story was quickly submitted to Weird Tales and likewise rejected.

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Uncollected Letter in a Locke-box?

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[redacted]’s recent post offering a breakdown of the recipients of all those Collected Letters sent me back to Dennis McHaney’s Howard in the Eyrie — The Conan Years: Part Four, Conclusion, a chapbook from December 2002 (The contents of which were amalgamated into Robert E. Howard: World’s Greatest Pulpster, which I’ve been lamentably late in getting around to ordering) On page 14 of the chapbook (page 99 of Pulpster), which deals with the Eyrie section of the February 1937 Weird Tales, Dennis quotes a letter from one Robert Locke, of Kansas City:

It is seldom that one writer will become enthralled by a fellow scribe’s creation. Yet Conan, the character created by Robert E. Howard, so captured my imagination that shortly before his untimely death, I wrote a letter to him expressing my admiration. The letter which Mr. Howard wrote me is one of my most prized possessions. In it he stated his appreciation for my interest and promised that he would write many more stories, carrying Conan through the mythical countries of Khitai, Khosala, Brythunia, Corinthia, etc. . .

This intrigues me for several reasons. That first generation of Howard fans was the only one that enjoyed what none of us ever have, a window of opportunity for give-and-take with Robert E. Howard while he was alive and writing. I can but echo Rob’s earlier thoughts on this issue–if even a dozen or two dozen handcrafted REH responses to fanmail moldered away in attics and cellars or were mulched in the Forties, Fifties, and subsequent decades, that’s an intolerable loss. Locke describes the one he received as a prized possession; could his heirs, and their heirs, be located by researching Kansas City public records? At this late date, any such effort would be staring down a barrel of diminishing returns, but still…

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