Mysteries of Time and Spirit, One in Particular

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What a relief it is to turn from the troll droppings and toxic testosterone of the Novalyne-Killed-My-Favorite-Writer mouth-breathers online to words written by those who were actually alive and alert in 1936. The first few references to Robert E. Howard in the 2002 Night Shade Books volume Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, are merely incidental, then, in a letter dated October 19, 1932, Lovecraft tells Wandrei “Just got a fine set of rattlesnake rattles from Robert E. Howard. His letter accompanying them is a veritable prose-poem with the unconquerable serpent as its theme.” How much would those rattles, known to have been handled by 2 greats, fetch at a weird fiction-themed memorabilia auction today? Ah well, chances are they would have been “borrowed” in the late 70s and never returned to whoever was their rightful owner at that point…

On March 28, 1932 HPL is still coming to grips with “a 22-page (closely typed) argumentative epistle from Two-Gun Bob, the Terror of the Plains.” On December 6, 1935, he dismisses most of the new Weird Tales: “Nothing of any merit in it except Klarkash-ton’s “Chain of Aforgomon”—that is, nothing short. Two-Gun’s serial may be good, but I never read serials until I have all the parts.” (By the time of his June 20, 1936 letter to CAS, Lovecraft had the complete Hour of the Dragon, which he pronounced “really splendid” despite some reservations about chronic carnage and the nomenclature that always affected him like itching powder poured down the back of his collar). In that same letter he reacts with amusement to “how quickly [in “The Challenge from Beyond”] Two-Gun made a rip-roaring sanguinary Conan out of the mild & scholarly George Campbell.” And then, much sooner than would be preferable, Letter #234, from Lovecraft to Wandrei on June 24, 1936, is the next in the sequence. After expressing concern about an accident that befell Wandrei’s sister-in-law, Lovecraft writes “A more tragic and less remediable blow is one which has just hit weird fictiondom in a very vital spot—a disaster which I can scarcely bring myself to believe.” He himself has learned the news “in the form of card (without particulars) from Miss Moore.”

What a year is 1936! Scarcely anybody else in the gang had quite the driving zest and spontaneity of tough old Conan. It is hard to say just what made his yarns stand out so, but the real secret is that he was in every one of them. I can’t understand this tragedy, for although R E H had a moody side expressed in his resentment against civilisation (the basis of our perennial and voluminous epistolary debate), I always thought that this was a more or less impersonal sentiment—like Belknap’s rage against the injustices of a capitalistic world. He himself seemed pretty well adjusted to his environment. Well–weird fiction certainly has occasion to mourn! It is probable that Two-Gun never read my last letter to him–a 32-page affair mailed about a week before the bad news reached me. Some time, if you like, I’ll lend you R E H’s last picture–a snap taken this spring, and now lent to Dwyer. He had changed much since his better-known pictures–getting stout and round-faced, & growing a large moustache which (in conjunction with his ten-gallon hat) made him look quite like a western cinema sheriff. Eheu, fugaces! A great guy, who will not soon be forgotten!

The standout insight of the preceding is of course familiar from its recycling for Lovecraft’s “In Memoriam: Robert Ervin Howard.” Markedly less accurate is the assumption that Howard had ever been voicing an “impersonal sentiment”; the man didn’t do impersonal. To perceive was to personalize for him. But the informality of that “a great guy,” from someone whose prose was often so periwigged, is quite moving, as is HPL’s desire for the photo to circulate among his acquaintances so that Howard would be neither out of sight nor out of mind for a little while longer.

Missing from the letter to Wandrei is the “insider”-informedness of Lovecraft’s June 20 letter to E. Hoffmann Price, who had of course visited the Howard family: “His mother’s pleural illness imposed a great strain upon both him and his father, yet I cannot think that this would be sufficient to drive his tough-fibred nervous system to self-destructive extremes.” And with Price, never a booster of Howard’s fantasy, Lovecraft allowed himself to speculate about the regional roads Howard had only just begun to take: “That bird had gifts of an order even higher than the readers of his published work could suspect, and in time would have made his mark in real literature with some folk-epic of his beloved southwest. He was a perennial fount of erudition and eloquence on this theme–and had the creative imagination to make old days live again. Mitra, what a man!”

So which it would it have been? A mark made in “real literature” with a Southwestern folk-epic, or a continued role as a “vital spot” of weird fiction? The divergence between Lovecraft’s 2 letters in a way anticipates many discussions about Howards That Might Have Been down through the decades.

Life goes on for the living, and there is no mention of Howard in a letter dated August 29, 1936, save perhaps for HPL’s judgement that “1936 is certainly a year of uncannily bad luck all along the line.” (One’s impulse is to warn him about 1937) From a sword-and-sorcery perspective, a hint of Excalibur being passed to a worthy successor instead of tossed back to the Lady of the Lake appears in a letter dated October 9, 1936: “I used to admire old Fritz Leiber’s work immensely 25 or 30 years ago when he was a young fellow in Robert Mantell’s company. Didn’t know he had a son.” Not only did “old Fritz” have a son, but that son had gifts as a fantasist that Lovecraft would influence, if only briefly. The Rhode Islander is also pleased to have “had a good glimpse of Pres. Roosevelt the other day when he was in town. Here’s hoping he wins by a real landslide!”–partisanship the departed New Dealer in Cross Plains would have endorsed. By November 8, 1936, Robert Barlow has supplied “a rather crude bound copy [of an edition of “The Shunned House”] to send to Dr. Howard for the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection.” (Does that survive?)

It is no fun at all–it is in fact rather like taking a flurry of punches–to reach the last letter in the book, that from Wandrei to HPL dated March 17, 1937, and read “Have you written, or are you writing, any new tales?” and then “With best wishes for a successful and benign spring.” Benignity was in short supply that spring, as the “disaster” of the preceding June was compounded by HPL’s own death while still middle-aged. The Lovecraft circle may not have been charmed, but it was frequently charming, as Mysteries of Time and Spirit demonstrates again and again. The impression is of a golden web of creativity and collegiality in which promising writers were delighted to be caught, and Joshi and Schultz deserve thanks for restoring that web strand by strand.

ROB ADDS: Both The Dark Barbarian and Rusty Burke’s online Howard Bookshelf show that Barlow donated “The Shunned House” to the Howard Collection at Howard Payne University, but as of 2005, it was no longer on the shelves and was probably gone long before then. Whether or not it is one of the volumes that Doc Howard retrieved when he became dissatisfied with the treatment his son’s books were receiving at the library is not known, at least not by me. If he did retrieve it, someone might know where it is, but I’m guessing that, along with many other fantastical writings, it went missing from HPU and now lives on some fan’s mantle.