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.