Archive for the 'H. P. Lovecraft' Category

And so his boyhood wandered into youth,
And still the hazes thickened round his head,
And red, lascivious nightmares shared his bed
And fantasies with greedy claw and tooth
Burrowed into the secret parts of him –
Gigantic, bestial and misshapen paws
Gloatingly fumbled each white youthful limb,
And shadows lurked with scarlet gaping jaws.

Robert E. Howard, Fragment

Justin Geoffrey left the witch-haunted town of Arkham early in 1916, with heartfelt thanks to his friend and fellow poet Edward Derby. He returned to Greenwich Village resolved to gain some worldly advantages before he was done – if not a complete formal education, then at least sufficient money. He hungered to visit Europe. He had made casual acquaintances of French, Italian, German and Hungarian origin in the Village, and despite his generally antisocial nature, they liked the intent way he listened to their stories of their home countries.

In a former stable that was now an artist’s studio in MacDougal Alley, at a party to celebrate recent successful sales of several paintings, Justin Geoffrey met a fake medium by the name of Ethan O’Neill. O’Neill too was enjoying success, but he thought it might be greater. Genteel in appearance and manner, he was also blandly ordinary, and he thought an intense young poet with a disconcerting presence would make a useful partner. Justin didn’t care for O’Neill’s line of grifting – in fact, he despised it – but he saw his chance and deep-sixed his remaining scruples. Sourly quoting a line of Horace he had picked up from Derby in Arkham (“Si possis recte, si non, quocumque modo rem”)* Justin began helping O’Neill fleece his various well-breeched dupes. (*If possible make money honestly; if not, make it somehow.)

O’Neill had been right about the value of Justin Geoffrey’s presence. Business picked up remarkably. The United States had not yet entered the war in 1916, but there were many bereaved families in England that O’Neill reasoned would be in the market for messages from beyond. To England they went.

Again, he was right, and they did well, especially when the hellish carnage of the Somme began. There were over 57,000 British casualties on the first day (July 1st). O’Neill concentrated on noble and wealthy families, from which many British officers came, and he was a Protestant who decried the Easter Rising, so his Irish descent did not count against him. (To ingratiate himself with clients he would have said it even if he had been a red-hot rebel at heart.)

Justin detested the fraud even while money rolled in — the fraud and his partner. Neither offended him ethically very much, but the banal platitudes he uttered daily turned his stomach. He seethed at the thought that his darkly brilliant poetry made him almost nothing, while this rubbish gained the pair thousands of pounds.

O’Neill and Geoffrey were lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while in England, and to gain his active support. Conan Doyle had become an ardent believer in spiritualism by this time, and he was impressed by the pair. He attended some of their séances and endorsed them as genuine. Their clients after that included some of the noblest – and richest – families in the land.

Justin was still subject to fearful nightmares. He did in fact possess psychic sensitivity, but not of a kind to comfort bereaved parents or wives, or – in the end – to have much commercial value. His talent and magnetic presence disturbed more than soothed when he sprang to his feet while feigning to commune with a soldier dead in an artillery barrage and screamed, “The face … the face … the face!”  O’Neill carried such moments off by explaining that malign spirits were interfering with the séance, but he worried that this might not succeed forever, and even more that Justin would go insane, as the youth feared would happen.

Besides, Justin told him ever more frequently that he wanted to quit his imposture and travel on the continent once the war ended, regardless of who won. Their partnership was going to cease whether or not O’Neill desired it. The older man decided to end it unexpectedly and on his terms; to run out on Justin, taking their considerable profits with him.

O’Neill knew Justin was young, thought him naïve and foolish, possibly mad, but he made a fatal mistake in deeming him stupid. Justin knew things about O’Neill, too – that he lacked any trace of scruple and thought it clever, even admirable, to deceive. When O’Neill tried to decamp with their money in the spring of 1918, his actions did not take Justin by surprise. O’Neill fled from London to Southampton, planning to sail for the United States on a liner.

He never boarded the ship. He disappeared.

It is likely that Justin Geoffrey caught O’Neill as he fled with the cash in a carpetbag, and that a fatal confrontation ensued. Justin’s brother John, still wearing the scar of a far less serious clash when they were boys, would have believed it. Although Justin was neither physically robust nor – much of the time – adequately fed, in a rage he might have overcome a soft, middle-aged man like O’Neill, and even struck him dead without meaning to. No corpse was ever found, but the harbor of Southampton was spacious, boat anchors and baling wire cheap enough.

I believe that Justin Geoffrey went to Ireland for the remainder of 1918, and after that appeared in Europe with enough money to travel where he liked. Justin had produced poetry only in a desultory fashion while associated with O’Neill. In Ireland he began writing again, prodigious amounts, working twenty hours at a stretch sometimes and filling reams in a fortnight. To that period belong his bleak and morbid poems on the theme of murder – of which, perhaps, he was guilty. Since REH created Justin Geoffrey, and wrote a great deal of poetry himself, it is possible to consider some of it as being work Geoffrey might have written. “One Who Comes at Eventide”, for example, deals with the remorse and horror of a man who has committed a terrible slaying.

“My blood ran fire when the deed was done;

Now it runs colder than the moon that shone

On shattered fields where dead men lay in heaps

Who could not hear a ravished daughter’s moan.

“So now I fire my veins with stinging wine,

And hoard my youth as misers hug their gold,

Because I know what shape will come and sit

Beside my crumbling hearth – when I am old.”

There was also “Flight”, purporting to deal with Cain and his emotions as “… now he fled from the silent dead and the wrathful face of God.”  It ends with the couplet,

“The stars were dim and the moon was red and leaves stirred on the bough.

Cain stood alone by the nameless sea and the mark was on his brow.”

Other poems from his hypothetical “Irish period” which Geoffrey might have written were “Recompense”, “The Singer in the Mist”, “Shadows of Dreams”, “The Madness of Cormac”, “Babel” and “Laughter in the Gulfs”.

O’Neill’s disappearance might have been investigated more closely, and Geoffrey arrested, if it had not occurred in the war’s final year. Germany unleashed the desperate “Spring Offensive” in an effort to win before the American forces could be fully deployed. Then the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 began. It killed more people world-wide than the Black Death of the 14th century had done. In Britain it appeared first in Glasgow, in May, and reached London by June. Almost 230,000 people died in that country alone. O’Neill, for all anybody knew, might have been one of them.

Justin Geoffrey contracted it himself, but survived with a mild case. As a young adult – he was then twenty – he belonged to the group most at risk in that pandemic. Children and the aged actually perished less often, statistically, for the precise reason that their immune systems were weaker. This special and uncommon strain of influenza ravaged the human body more fiercely as its immune system fought back. Justin had always been some-what sickly and had poor resistance to illness. In this instance it may actually have saved his life.

He wrote voluminously to Edward Derby while in Ireland, also. Residing in Dublin most of the time, he visited the sites of Tara, Emain Macha and Cashel, as well as spending some time in Cork, Limerick and – for a couple of months – Galway. The Irish War of Independence opened while Geoffrey was there, but as with the Great War, he took little interest in it. He departed in 1919, avoiding Britain, perhaps because he feared being questioned as to O’Neill’s fate. He travelled from Galway to Bilbao on a Spanish freighter.

In Bilbao, a thriving center of shipping and commerce, Geoffrey promptly deposited his money with the Banco de Vizcaya. Then, as far as his haunted mind would let him, he took his ease for a few weeks and planned his future. Another man might have taken the opportunity to cross the mountains and visit Burgos and Valladolid. Justin Geoffrey felt a keener interest in the macabre hints von Junzt had given in Nameless Cults. A hundred years before, von Junzt and his friend Ladeau had come to this very region, and the German had inveigled his way into certain cults of the Basques, a very ancient people he was convinced were related to the Etruscans and the prehistoric Picts described in the Nemedian Chronicles. He had been almost forthright concerning nests of the hideous Deep Ones beneath the stormy surface of the Bay of Biscay. In Bilbao, and then after he crossed the Pyrenees to Bayonne and Bordeaux, Geoffrey wrote several poems about the horrors of the unplumbed sea.

Passing through France, he paused longest in the region which in the Middle Ages was known as Averoigne. Geoffrey knew a good deal about its legends, the strange beings said to haunt it even in his day, and the medieval sorcerers such as Azedarac and Luc le Chaudronnier who had flourished there. From Nameless Cults he was fully aware that von Junzt and Ladeau had also been in the Averoigne district before him, and experienced one or two disturbing adventures in Vyones. In Germany he visited Schloss Kurenthal outside Dusseldorf, the ancestral castle of the von Junzt barons, and the ruins of the tenth-century monastery where the Nemedian Chronicles had been penned by an Irish monk.

His nightmares had plagued him endlessly during his time in Ireland, nor did they give him peace as he travelled in Europe. His poems dealt more and more with the theme of encroaching madness, the lack of hope or meaning in human existence, the conviction that the universe was ruled by malevolence and chaos. A number of his letters to Derby expressed his conviction that he would die in a madhouse.

Then, in 1921, while passing through Hungary, he stopped at the village of Stregoicavar, which in ancient times – a thousand years or more before Christ – had been known as Xuthltan, a word from a lost, unknown language. The strange monument known locally as the “Black Stone” had been described in von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, and naturally Justin Geoffrey paid it a visit, looking at it for a long time and running his hands over the curious mineral of which it was made. The local innkeeper remembered him as “… a young fellow and queer-acting – mumbled to himself – a poet, I think.”  When he was in-formed, ten years later, that Justin had died screaming in a madhouse, he was not amazed. His only comment was, “Poor lad – he looked too long at the Black Stone.”

(The location of Stregoicavar would be worth another post.)

The narrator of the story, by its end, reaches the conclusion, “Well for Justin Geoffrey that he tarried there only in the sunlight and went his way, for had he gazed upon that ghastly conclave [of ghosts], his mad brain would have snapped before it did.”  He also declares, “… but the seeds of madness had been sown in the poet’s brain long before he ever came to Stregoicavar.”

So they had. However, visiting the Black Stone did nothing to prolong Justin’s fragile sanity, and he must have received disturbing psychic impressions from it. In Hungary he wrote his longest, possibly his most fantastic and terrible poem, “People of the Monolith”. His perennial nightmares began to include, after that, visions of great toadlike horrors with squashy, malleable bodies. They possessed broad boneless wings they could retract within their bodies when not flying, and having that ability despite their bulk – rhinocerotic or greater – seemed to prove they could wholly or partly ignore gravity. They also possessed tentacles. In some cases they had taloned feet, in others misshapen hoofs. Their characteristic sound was a hideous tittering that seemed to express extremes of lust and demonic cruelty. At this time or shortly afterwards, Justin wrote the lines,

They say foul beings of Old Times still lurk

In dark forgotten corners of the world,

And Gates still gape to loose, on certain nights,

Shapes pent in Hell.

It was then too, or in Turkey, that Justin wrote Out of the Old Land, with the passage,

They lumber through the night

With their elephantine tread;

I shudder in affright

As I cower in my bed.

They lift colossal wings

On the high gable roofs

Which tremble to the trample

Of their mastodonic hoofs.

That outpouring of work continued after his return to the U.S.A. in 1923 – but only briefly. The nightmares which had long haunted his sleep entered his waking hours, afflicting him with hallucinations, making him see weird alien landscapes and bizarre monsters where other people saw parks and woodland. On several occasions he fled screaming in the street from demons no-one else could see, or believe in. Before the end of 1923 he was confined in an asylum.

He might have survived an indefinite time there, or even been released, though that seems unlikely – but he was to suffer the last shattering experience that made an end of Justin Geoffrey. H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu” records “outré mental illness and outbreaks of group folly or mania in the spring of 1925.”  People around the world, especially those of poetic or artistic temperament, “dream of great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.”  Arthur Wilcox, an eccentric young sculptor, was among them. On March 23rd, he lapsed into a semi-conscious feverish state and hallucinated – or received psychic visions of – a monstrous being miles high, with talons and a tentacled face. Many artists and poets had similar experiences between March 23rd and April 2nd. One “widely known architect with leanings toward theosophy and occultism, went violently insane on the date of young Wilcox’s seizure, and expired several months later after incessant screamings to be saved from some escaped denizen of hell.”

If that was the architect’s fate, Justin Geoffrey’s seems to have been inevitable. R’lyeh, the citadel of great Cthulhu – or part of it — briefly rose again from the abyss at the bottom of the Pacific in 1925, and Cthulhu was as briefly freed. As the narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” says, “He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.”  That was precisely what happened to a number of artistic or psychically sensitive people around the world – and it was impossible that Justin Geoffrey of all men would have been oblivious to the resurgent horror.

Nor was he. “Screaming with fright and frenzy” was precisely how the unfortunate young man died, a year later, his nightmares even more intense and horrific. His shrieks and convulsions wore out his body, and no drug or medicine could alleviate the visions he suffered. As Conrad says, “Toward the last, they merged so terribly with his waking thoughts that they seemed grisly realities and his dying shrieks and blasphemies shocked even the hardened keepers of the madhouse.”

In pace requiescat – or so let’s hope.

Conceived and bred in blackened pits of hell,
The poems come that set the stars on fire;
Born of black maggots writhing in a shell
Men call a poet’s skull – an iron bell
Filled up with burning mist and golden mire.

Robert E. Howard, “Which Will Scarcely Be Understood”

Having finished my previous post here with some speculation as to who built the eerie house that had such a malign influence on the boy Justin Geoffrey, I think it’d be fitting to continue with a post about Howard’s mad poet. REH’s fragment “The House” is filled with information about Geoffrey’s background and early life that is priceless to any researcher. Lovecraft supplied some authoritative “facts” about Geoffrey too, as in “The Thing on the Doorstep.”

“The House” was never published in REH’s lifetime. If he’d revised it for printing, a couple of things might have been different. For instance, Conrad says that Justin Geoffrey met “his death at the age of twenty-one”. But we’re also told that Justin “finished high school” before he left the family home, and was down-and-out, starving, in Greenwich Village at the age of seventeen. That leaves a gap of four years. But he travelled to Hungary, which must have been after his time in Greenwich Village, and “looked too long at the Black Stone.” His death in a madhouse was five years after that. “The Black Stone” tells us so, and since that story was published while Howard lived (Weird Tales, November 1931), it has to be given more weight. Besides, in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (Weird Tales, January 1937) Lovecraft refers to “the notorious Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey, who wrote “The People of the Monolith” and died screaming in a madhouse in 1926 after a visit to a sinister, ill-regarded village in Hungary.”

For those reasons I tend to accept the usual dates for Justin Geoffrey’s life – 1898 to 1926 – and to think that he was twenty-eight when he died, not twenty-one.

Glitches in chronology aside, “The House” tells us much about Geoffrey’s ancestry and siblings. The Geoffrey family came to America in the late 17th century “to rebuild their fortunes.” It’s probable that, if they were West Country folk and Protestant, they were accused of treason after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and deprived of lands and wealth, a couple at least being sentenced to slavery in the West Indies, like Captain Blood in Sabatini’s novel. When James II was deposed in favor of William of Orange in 1688, the transported Geoffreys were pardoned, and their relatives came to the Indies to ensure their release according to the law. Afterwards – I assume – they all moved to New York. A stolid, middle class breed even then, for they seem to have been minor country gentry, not aristocrats, they became merchants and prospered in the new land.

At the 19th century’s end, when Justin was born, his parents evidently lived in Poughkeepsie. The fragment doesn’t mention that city, but it seems likely for several reasons. The experience which changed the ten-year-old Justin so markedly took place at “a small village in New York State – up close to the foot of the Catskills.”  His family was visiting friends there. That area is close to Poughkeepsie. One of Justin’s sisters graduated from Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie. The town is, and was then, a center of commerce and manufacturing, well suited to the kind of people Justin’s kin are described as being.

When my series on Helen Tavrel ended, I imagined she had married her companion, Stephen Harmer, and went with him to Massachusetts. They prospered in the shipping business. It’d be nicely ironic if a descendant of theirs with the maiden name of Harmer had been Justin Geoffrey’s mother – that conventional brood springing from a pirate hellcat!  Maybe the Harmers covered up Helen’s past – in her own day, because it would have meant a noose for her, in later generations because they didn’t want the shame made public.

In passing, Conrad was too cocksure that his investigation of the Geoffrey line was complete. Unknown to their posterity, there could easily have been a bastard of some poet, gambler or madman in there some-where. It happens in the best families, more often than ever gets into the record. Conrad also seems to have investigated the Geoffrey family line more thoroughly than the mother’s side, which he hardly mentions except to say, “… sober, industrious merchants. Both of his parents are of this class, and likewise his brothers and sisters.”

The description of those siblings bears that out. “His brother John is a successful banker in Cincinnati. Eustace is the junior partner of a law firm in New York, and William, the younger brother, is in his junior year in Harvard, already showing the ear-marks of a successful bond salesman. Of the three sisters of Justin, one is married to the dullest business man imaginable, one is a teacher in a grade school and the other graduates from Vassar this year. Not one of them shows the slightest sign of the characteristics which marked Justin. He was like a stranger, an alien among them.”

After he was ten, maybe. Until then, “he was no whit different from his brothers.”  He even changed physically. Before, “He had the same stubby build, the same round, dull, good-natured face. One would think a changeling had been substituted for Justin Geoffrey at the age of ten!”  (Robert E. Howard, “The House”)

That’s pretty definite. Conrad was fascinated by Justin Geoffrey’s case. Kirowan credits Conrad with “deep knowledge of biology and psychology,” so he must have had a good education which includes those fields. He had certainly been in Vienna – Sigmund Freud’s town, of course – and may have studied there under Professor von Boehnk, whom he mentions in “Dig Me No Grave.”

When Justin was ten, he went fishing with a group of other boys near that small village near the foot of the Catskills, became separated and lost, and slept the night in a grove of oaks surrounding an abandoned old house. Kirowan recognizes “those tall sombre oaks, with the castle-like house half concealed among them” from a painting by the artist Humphrey Skuyler, a friend of his and Conrad’s. This blogger’s theories about “The House” and its builder can be found in the post “Who Are Those Guys?”  Briefly, I think he was a misbegotten warlock, one of the evil, sorcerous van der Heyl family (HPL, “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”) on his mother’s side, and a xenophobic Martense (HPL, “The Lurking Fear”) on his sire’s. The faintly Oriental architecture of “The House” was due to the man’s having spent years in the Dutch East Indies, particularly the Aceh sultanate in Sumatra.

It isn’t a pleasant structure. “It made me shudder,” says Kirowan. “It fairly exudes an aura of abnormality,” says Skuyler. “A ring of tall, gnarled oaks entirely surrounded the house, which glimmered through their branches like a bare and time-battered skull,” adds Kirowan for good measure.

Something evidently haunted the place. Perhaps the ghost of its former inhabitant, perhaps some waif of the outer dark he had conjured while working his magic, perhaps just the baleful influences of the demons with whom he trafficked in his life and the enchantments he had carried out. But the circumstantial evidence was strong that whatever it was entered the mind of the boy who slept among the oaks and worked in him like yeast afterward.

When found among the oaks next morning, Justin was seemingly unharmed, and there were no signs of trauma. He only said he had vivid and extraordinary dreams “which he could not describe”. He continued to have “wild and fearful dreams which occurred almost nightly” as Conrad says. He also remarks in a disparaging way, “This alone was unusual – the Geoffreys were no more troubled with nightmares than a hog is.” He’s clearly out of sympathy with the prosaic Geoffreys, and refers to their home as a “stifling environment”. It’s easy to perceive REH’s own attitude to the environment of small town Texas, in which he felt trapped and from which he sought escape in his writing, in this fragment.

And his fictional mad poet began to write. Aged eleven, in fact, he penned a poem which included the stanza:

“Beyond the Veil, what gulfs of Time and Space?

What blinking, mowing things to blast the sight?

I shrink before a vague, colossal Face

Born in the mad immensities of Night.”

His family didn’t approve, and tried to stop him writing. Conrad is scathing about their response, but I can’t see that they were wrong to suspect lines like that, especially after his big brother John thumped on him for neglecting his chores to write, and Justin turned on the bigger boy ferociously and struck him – perhaps with something hard and sharp, although we aren’t told – and left John with a scar he still carried as an adult. Even Conrad admits that “Justin’s temper was sudden and terrible.”  All since that night in the oaks outside the deserted house. “His eyes blazed with an inner passion and his tousled black hair fell over a brow strangely narrow. That forehead of his was one of his unpleasant features. I cannot say why, but I never glanced at that pale, high, narrow fore-head that I did not … suppress a shudder!”

Puberty and adolescence can certainly account for changes in temperament and physique. Adolescence can be hell, and a lot of us were nothing but prickly, edgy nerve endings, resenting any restraint or intrusion, while we went through it. But none of Justin Geoffrey’s siblings were misfits as extreme as he, just as none showed his precocious talent. The others went through high school, worked diligently if unimaginatively, and went on to college. Justin finished high school unwillingly and refused even to consider college. He rejected mathematics, ignored science, and paid no attention to modern history. But he avidly read everything he could find on the subjects of myth, magic and – I shouldn’t be surprised – ancient and medieval history. Doubtless he shone without effort at English.

Soon after completing high school, he seems to have left Poughkeepsie, and gone to Greenwich Village – a Mecca for unconventional artists and bohemians in general, though there was considerably more to the area – in New York. That would have been in 1914, as the Great War began in Europe, though Justin Geoffrey paid little attention to it. 1914 was also the year Isadora Duncan, dancer and social rebel, came to the United States, and Justin admired her. He possibly knew Duncan had met the occultist Aleister Crowley a few years before, and that Crowley even had an affair with Duncan’s close companion Mary d’Este. It isn’t recorded, though, that Geoffrey ever encountered them.

It is recorded that Geoffrey corresponded with Edward Pickman Derby of Arkham, who at twenty-five was “a prodigiously learned man and a fairly well known poet and fantaisiste though his lack of contacts and responsibilities had slowed down his literary growth by making his products derivative and over-bookish.” (Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”) The critics never viewed Derby’s work as equal in genius or power to Justin Geoffrey’s. But unlike Geoffrey, Derby had parents who indulged him and even took him to Europe on annual journeys. Derby was eight years Geoffrey’s senior, and Derby’s friend and confidante Daniel Upton was eight years older again.

The Village abounded in artists, poets and playwrights. They should have been more congenial to Justin’s temperament than the people he had known in Poughkeepsie, but even in Greenwich Village he found none of the sympathetic affiliations he might have expected. Some “bohemians” he met were as mediocre as anybody in the Poughkeepsie he loathed, pretentious, without a quarter of his talent. Some recognized this and were jealous. Nor was Justin, an intense misfit, a loner whose “temper was sudden and terrible”, haunted by awful dreams and visions from “the mad immensities of Night”, easy to like. In Greenwich Village he was first on record as saying that he was likely to die in a madhouse.

While in Greenwich Village, too, he discovered the poetry of Edward Pickman Derby. The coddled Arkham recluse had published, at eighteen, a collection of poems under the title Azathoth and Other Horrors. That, curiously, had been the same year Justin Geoffrey slept among the oaks outside the old house near the Catskills. Justin read Derby’s poems, wrote to him, and so their correspondence began.

The Golden Goblin Press of New York had brought out an edition of von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten (under its English title of Nameless Cults) in 1909. It was lavishly illustrated by Diego Vasquez, and splendidly bound, but fully a quarter of the original material had been excised, as REH informs his readers in “The Thing on the Roof.” Besides, the artistic standards of the publishers had run away with them, and their edition cost too much to sell widely. Justin Geoffrey was not only penniless at the time; he was starving. He perused the edition at the lodgings of one of his Village acquaintances who, flush at the time, had bought the book, chiefly for the Vasquez illustrations. It filled his mind with a craving to study the original of which Derby had told him.

Edward Derby may have saved Justin’s life at that time, indirectly at least. Reading between the lines of Justin’s letters, he realized the boy’s distress. While too impractical and reclusive to take action himself, Derby asked his friend Daniel Upton to visit the youth on his next trip to New York City. Upton complied, and found Justin Geoffrey in a bad way, not only malnourished but haunted by the grotesque nightmares which had begun that night in the Catskills six years earlier.

Geoffrey went to Arkham with Upton and lodged with Edward Derby during 1915. This was years before Derby’s ill-fated attraction to Asenath Waite, which eventually led to Upton’s sending six bullets through Derby’s brain, though he swore Derby had been possessed by another, malign spirit. (Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”)

Daniel Upton’s account does not mention his having met Geoffrey, or the boy’s stay in Arkham. He was more deeply concerned with Derby and the ghastly course of events which led to his destruction. Geoffrey was much taken with “witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham”, and as a graduate of Miskatonic University, Derby arranged for him to peruse the unique collection of occult books in Miskatonic’s library. These included the original Dusseldorf edition of Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and the German translation of the Ghorl Nigral by Hermann Mülder. Geoffrey could not read German, but Derby did, and translated aloud for hours. He also wrote down certain passages in English for his youthful guest. Whether this was well-advised, or did Geoffrey any good, is dubious. However, his diet improved in Arkham and he had nightmares less often. He wrote copiously during those months, and produced the first work of his own that he considered excellent. Derby agreed enthusiastically, and helped him publish the work in the collection Towers in the Sky – mentioned in REH’s fragment “The Door to the Garden,” aka “The Door to the World.”

Towers in the Sky caused a sensation in artistic circles from New York to San Francisco, and something of a scandal in Poughkeepsie, but made little money – though if it had, the other Geoffreys might have forgiven Justin its grisly content. He remained poor. As the narrator of “The Black Stone” commented later, “… most of his recognition has come since his death.”

Justin Geoffrey now began to resent that circumstance. He envied his sole friend the ability to travel that his parents’ money gave him. He yearned to do the same. He had never given much thought to acquiring cash before, but he returned to Greenwich Village in 1916 bent on doing just that.

The resolution began a new phase in his life.

This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard's Fiction.

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Ebony and Crystal: Poems in Verse and Prose (1922, The Auburn Journal) was Clark Ashton Smith’s third volume of poetry, following The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912, Robertson) and Odes and Sonnets (1918, The Book Club of California). Smith had conceived the volume as early as 1916, and by late 1920 had a manuscript which he shopped around to Alfred A. Knopf, Boni & Liveright, and Houghton Mifflin, all of whom turned it down. (SU 148, 167, 186-189) Finally, in 1922 the Auburn Journal was willing to publish the book—“aside from half-a-dozen of the more ‘daring’ erotics”—on credit. (SU 209)

George Sterling helped, providing a preface for the book, going over the proofs, soliciting reviews in newspapers, as well as writing a review of the book which appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin. (SU 11) Problems with the binders delayed the timely publication of the book, which was published in December 1922 in an edition of 500 numbered copies, not counting unbound copies, etc.; Smith says in a letter to Sterling that 550 copies were printed in total, which probably includes unbound copies for review, at a cost to Smith of “about a dollar per copy.” Smith sought to retail them for $2 a copy, from which booksellers would take a commission. (SU 217-218) By May 1923, Smith wrote to Sterling that “The entire bill was $556, of which I still owe $180.”; this suggests that at least 200 copies must have sold, possibly more depending on the bookseller’s commision. To pay off the remainder of the debt, Smith began writing a column for the Auburn Journal. (SU 231) By 1926, Smith still had a hundred copies of Ebony & Crystal in stock; in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft in 1936, Smith admitted that the stock was “not yet exhausted.” (SU 272, SLCAS 278)

In August 1922, several months before Ebony and Crystal was published, Smith gained a new correspondent. H. P. Lovecraft and Smith shared a mutual friend in Samuel Loveman, to whom E&C is dedicated, and at Loveman’s suggestion Lovecraft began writing to Smith. (LNY 19) Through Lovecraft, Smith and his work began to be exposed to a wider circle—Lovecraft published a review of E&C in the amateur periodical L’Alouette (Jan 1924), and promoted the book to friends and correspondents—including Robert E. Howard, who Lovecraft had starting exchanging letters with in 1930. In a letter dated 24 July 1933, Lovecraft wrote to Robert E. Howard:

By the way—I enclose a circular of Clark Ashton Smith’s new brochure of weird stories, all of which are splendid. I advise you to pick up this item—and also the book of poems at its reduced price. (MF 2.619)

The “brochure” was The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies (June 1933), a collection of weird fiction privately printed for Smith by the Auburn Journal. Smith advertised the sale of of The Double Shadow for 25¢ a piece, and the remainder of the copies of Ebony and Crystal marked down to $1 each; besides the announcements circulated by Lovecraft, the advertisements ran in The Auburn Journal, The Fantasy Fan, Science Fiction Digest, Fantasy Magazine, and (for The Double Shadow only) Weird Tales. (ED 205)

As it happened, Lovecraft was slightly behind on events. In the first surviving letter from Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, postmarked 15 March 1933, Howard thanks Smith for a copy of The Double Shadow, and adds:

I am enclosing a check for Ebony and Crystal and would feel most honored if you would write your autograph on the fly page. (CL 3.42)

Smith obliged, on the title page of Howard’s copy of the book, which was printed without fly-leaves, Smith inscribed the date, 4 July 1933, and the simple message:

For Robert E. Howard,

These litanies to Astarte and Hecate and Dagon and Demogorgon.

With fraternal good wishes,

Clark Ashton Smith

There is a slight discrepancy between the publishing date of The Double Shadow (June 1933), the date of Smith’s inscription (4 July), and Howard’s reception of it and order for Ebony & Crystal (postmarked 15 March); on the face of it, the likelihood is that the envelope’s postmark doesn’t correspond with the letter. Howard for his part was enthusiastic, as recorded in his reply to Smith, dated 22 July 1933:

I can hardly find words to express the pleasure — I might even say ecstasy — with which I have read, and re-read your magnificent Ebony and Crystal. Every line in it is a gem. I could dip into the pages and pick at random, anywhere in the book, images of clarity and depth unsurpassed. I haven’t the words to express what I feel, my vocabulary being disgustingly small. But so many of your images stir feeling of such unusual depth and intensity, and bring back half forgotten instincts and emotions with such crystal clearness. (CL 3.96)

The 152 page book contains 94 poems and 20 prose-pastels; despite the efforts to proof the book before publication, several of the extant books contain corrections in Smith’s own hand. Howard went on to expound on several of the contents:

For instance, the stanza containing the line: “The pines are ebony”. A memory springs up with startling clearness of a starlit glade wherein I stood, years ago and hundreds of miles distant, a glade bordered with pine trees that rose like a solid wall of blackness. “Ebony”. I have never encountered a darkness like that of a pine-forest at midnight. And again, “Winter Moonlight” and the line: “Carven of steel or fretted stone.” It limns a picture of last winter when I was struck with the weird and somber imagery of a tall mesquite tree etched against a snowy land and the dimly gleaming steel of a cloudy winter sky. (CL 3.96-97)

Refers to Impression (“The silver silence of the moon,” E&C 10); and Winter Moonlight (“The silence of the silver night,” E&C 71) respectively. Howard’s final praise was reserved for the centerpiece of the volume: The Hashish-Eater; or, the Apocalypse of Evil (“Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams,” E&C 49-64), a 582-line epic which would provide one of Smith’s most enduring epithets:

But I could go on indefinitely. I will not seek to express my appreciation of “The Hashish-Eater”. I lack the words. I have read it many times already; I hope to read it many more times. (CL 3.97)

The Texan closed out the letter with:

And in the meantime, my sincerest congratulations on Ebony and Crystal, and thanks for the intriguing inscription on the leaf. (CL 3.97)

Smith appreciated Howard’s comments, and his estimation of Howard’s own poetry seems to have raised his opinion of the Texan, as he wrote to August Derleth in a letter dated 29 August 1933:

H. seemed very appreciative of my book of poems, Ebony and Crystal, and evidently understood it as few people have done. (SLCAS 219)

Howard for his part confirmed in a letter to Lovecraft c. September 1933, writing that “Yes, I got both Smith’s brochure and his book of poems, as I told him.” (MF 2.634, CL 3.108)

Ebony and Crystal remained in Robert E. Howard’s library at the time of his death on 11 June 1936. Dr. Isaac M. Howard decided to donate the books in his son’s library, including E&C, to his son’s alma mater, Howard Payne College, as recounted in an article in the Brownwood Bulletin 29 June 1936, which reads in part:

The library consists of some 300 books, the great majority of which deal with history and biography. More than 50 volumes of current drama and current poetry are included in the collection.

Along with the books, the college acquired a complete file of all the magazines which carry the literary contributions of Robert E. Howard. Included in this file are short stories, novelettes, and book length novels and many poems.

The library is being prepared for cataloguing and circulation and is to be known as “The Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection.” (CLIMH 62)

The collection was also augmented by donations from Howard’s friends, including H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow. The college affixed the new acquisitions with a special bookplate, and then appears to have sent them into general circulation—as Steve Eng noted, “Such is standard library practice with any donation made in someone’s memory.” (TDB 183-184) The indifferent treatment upset Dr. Howard, who wrote to Farnsworth Wright on 19 December 1936 regarding the collection of his son’s pulp magazines:

These magazines were installed and I was particular enough to have Howard Payne College place his Library in a room part from all the rest of the Library in the College. I took the utmost pains to have this collection placed in such manner as to preserve it entirely.

I was in the Library one day this week. I find that they are wearing the backs off of his magazines. The net thing the leaves will be falling apart, and all that Robert Howard ever wrote will be lost to me if they remain there.

I have got to do one of two things if I preserve his magazines. (The books will stand rough usage.) The magazines will not. (CLIMH 143)

Dr. Howard removed the magazines from the library collection. In Dr. Charlotte Laughlin’s 1978 index what remained of the collection, she noted that one Cross Plains resident claimed “some articles had even been cut out of the magazines” (PQ 1.24), as well as providing another possible reason for the removal of the pulps:

The woman who was the librarian at Howard Payne in 1936, told the English teacher that she did not think that the pulp magazines had any place in the library of a Christian college. She was offended, like many people before or after her, by the scenes of violence and scantily clad women depicted on the covers. She said that she placed these magazines in the basement of the administration building, now known as Old Main. When Dr. Howard learned that they were in a damp basement, he boxed them up and took them home with him. (PQ 1.25)

The vicissitudes of library use led to attrition, so that the majority of the Howard donations lost their bookplate; some appear to never have had them. The original holograph accessions ledger which records Dr. Howard’s donation contains many errors, and over the decades many titles simply disappeared: lost, stolen, or discarded, so the full list of the original Howard Memorial collection will probably never be known. However, in the late 1970s the Howard Payne librarian Corrine Shields attempted to pull together what remained of the original collection, from which Dr. Charlotte Laughlin compiled “Robert E. Howard’s Library: An Annotated Checklist,” the first effort to catalogue both the original extent of the collection and what was left of it, published over the first four issues of the Paperback Quarterly. (PQ 1-4). This initial effort was followed by subsequent efforts by Glenn Lord, Steve Eng, Rusty Burke, Rob Roehm, and others to identify unknown works and locate lost volumes. The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, for example, does not appear on Dr. Howard’s holograph accession list; perhaps he included it among the pulp magazines.

When Steve Eng collated the lists for the appendix on Howard’s library in The Dark Barbarian (1984), he noted that Ebony and Crystal was not a part of the College’s collection. Charlotte Laughlin in “Robert E. Howard’s Library: An Annotated Checklist” in Paperback Quarterly vol. 1 no. 4 (Winter 1978) notes that Howard’s inscribed copy of Ebony and Crystal was given to Glenn Lord, representative of the Howard Estate, by a former Howard Payne librarian.

Of the approx. 300 titles from Dr. Howard’s initial donation, 68 titles remain in the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection. These were separated from the circulating collection in the Howard Payne University Library Treasure Room; they are now stored at the Robert E. Howard House and Museum in Cross Plains.

Works Cited

CL            The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda)

CLIMH     The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard

E&C         Ebony & Crystal

ED           Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography

LNY         Letters from New York

MF           A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2. vols)

PQ           Paperback Quarterly: A Journal for Paperback Collectors (vol. 1, no. 1-4)

SLCAS    The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith

SU           The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith

TDB         The Dark Barbarian

Read Ebony and Crystal here

Photo courtesy of Paul Herman

arkham-alwayscomesevening

If, like me, you love the work of Robert E. Howard (and if you are reading this blog, I know you do), you may be possessed of literary OCD. You need to get it all. Depending on the depth of your OCD, you will fall into several categories – the reader/collector, the completist, the minutia gatherer, or the super collector.

The super collector is that rare individual. They want the best of everything. They need the Herbert Jenkins A Gent From Bear Creek, The Hyborian Age, Skull-Face and Others, Always Comes Evening, the Gnome Press Conans, and complete runs of The Howard Collector and Amra. These collectors are an exclusive bunch and this article is not specifically directed at them.

grant-sowersofthethunderThere are plenty of fine Howard editions out there for the finding. I love the Donald M. Grant The Sowers of the Thunder. Illustrated by Roy G. Krenkel, one of Frank Frazetta’s friends, collaborators and mentors, it is a work of art as well as a collection of four fine stories. Pre-ordered copies from Grant came autographed by Krenkel! In a similar vein The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane from Wandering Star with illustrations from Gary Gianni carried forward that tradition. Both volumes contain numerous illustrations ranging from full color paintings to large detailed black and white illustrations to tiny spot sketches throughout the book. You cannot go five pages without encountering some figure or scene in the text or margin. The illustrations really enhanced the reading experience to me.

So, as a collector, the big question is “How do I do this without breaking (or robbing) the bank? The easiest answer is “You can’t!” There is just too much material out there. Even if you get paperback copies of everything, you will spend several hundred dollars. And much more, if you want nice copies of those paperbacks.

berkley-hourofthedragon-1stAs I write this, American Book exchange (one of the largest online purveyors/pushers of my OCD) lists 11,863 entries when you search for “Robert E. Howard.” This includes 7,180 paperback entries. (now this number is inflated since anthologies listing a Howard piece will be listed as well as any books that feature the names Robert and Howard somewhere in their description). Prices start at $3.00 plus shipping and go to several thousand for some really rare items. Over on eBay, there are 2,468 entries in Books alone (670 in Collectibles). The prices show 728 items over $35 and 818 under $13.

So there is a lot of material out there. How do you go about gathering your collection? There are several tried and tested methods:

  • Buy whatever you can find – REH, de Camp and Carter, pastiches, Role Playing Games, movies. Make Serendipity your favorite muse. I’ve done this on multiple occasions myself. I didn’t really know what I wanted until I saw it, so I bought it all. OCD, I love you.
  • Set up some filters early on. Do you want only the pure REH stuff? Or all the Conans no matter who wrote them? Do you want novels only? (This is not recommended in combination with the pure REH as you will get Almuric and The Hour of the Dragon and be done. And Almuric will be cheating some as it was finished by someone, probably Farnsworth Wright after Howard’s death.) Perhaps it is the artists associated with Howard – Frazetta, Krenkel, Brundidge, Boris, Achilles, Jones, or any of the other great artists who have tackled his work. There are a lot of them too. What about poetry, boxing, oriental, essays? This can help limit what you go after and allow you to focus in on some nice specific items.
  • Pick your format. Paperback? Combine it with the filters above. Hardcovers? Are you interested in any version, first editions, illustrated editions, signed and numbered, US only, US and UK, or full international?
  • Price point is the next important area. What are you willing to pay? Is $50 too much? Then the Arkham House, Wandering Star, and Gnome Press titles are going to be out of your price range. You want a nice Skull-Face and Others with a pristine Hannes Bok dustjacket. Be prepared to shell out some big bucks, generally $600 or more, up to a price with a comma in it. But, if you just want the stories, you have several options. You can get the entire volume in three paperbacks from the UK Panther Press ($25 or more). Or for a hardback copy, the Neville Spearman reprint from the mid-1970’s can be found for $35 to $50. However, it has an awful cover rather than the beautiful Bok cover. Other than that, you can track down the individual stories and/or pulps (Don’t get me started on that path. That way lies MADNESS!! And an extended money sinkhole.) However, going for the individual piece will mean you won’t get the August Derleth introduction or the memories of Lovecraft and E. Hoffman Price which are original and are not reprinted elsewhere that I know of.
  • The thing that happened when collectors get together to discuss their books, the question always comes up about the one that got away. When I was in college, I worked part time for about 20 hours a week at slightly less than $2.00 an hour. My take home was about $32 a week. Things were a lot cheaper then but still. Every time I visited my bookseller/pusher, she showed me a book. It was lovely, bound in bright red leather. The binding said Presentation Copy. It was Phantasmagoria by Lewis Carroll. I was holding a signed Lewis Carroll book. The price was $150. That was roughly five weeks pay! I was already a starving college student trying to justify $5.00 in paperbacks. I regret not getting it to this day, more than 40 years later. But, I could not afford it. The thing to remember is, if you find it and you can afford it, buy it. You don’t generally regret the books you buy. You always regret the ones you did not buy.
  • The most important rule is simply, buy what you like. Do not buy with the idea of investing and making a fortune over the years. Buy what you like at a price you think is fair and you will be happy. Sure some of the prices may go up. But to realize those prices, you have to find someone willing to pay that price. Which means selling it yourself. I’ve been involved in the book selling world for more than 40 years. There is something sad about seeing the face of someone who wants to sell their collection to me. They come in with high, high expectations. But the reality is the buyer (me) has to realize a certain price and profit for that purchase, that means, if I don’t have an immediate buyer, I am going to sit on this investment for a while. So, I have to store it and advertise that I have it and take it to shows and talk to people about it and, if it suffers some wear and tear along the way, mark it down. It might sell in two months, or six months, or maybe, two years. My money is tied up all the time I hold on to it. That means I have to figure all that in what I can offer. And it will not be what you were hoping. That is the sad reality of it. You may decide you want to keep it. Then, if it is something you loved and enjoyed and bought for a price you were happy with, you will generally remain happy. If you bought it as an investment, you may be disappointed. Be happy. It’s better for your life.

So now, where to start? For series characters, you can’t go wrong with the Del Rey omnibus volumes of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, El Borak, or Bran Mak Morn. And they have several great collections of short stories, such as The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard and The Best of Robert E. Howard (a two volume set). Reasonably priced, they contain a lot of great reading. Pick a character and dive in! But this isn’t nearly all there is. You want more!

bison-endofthetrailAnother great place to look is the set of paperbacks published by Zebra Books in the late 1970’s. They include The Sowers of the Thunder mentioned earlier with the great spot illustrations included though there is a different cover. There are at least 13 paperback volumes, most with covers by the amazing Jeff Jones. And these are (generally) not the series characters, no Conan, Kull, Kane. There are some Breckinridge Elkins and El Borak stories. The series includes fantasy, adventure, boxing, oriental, westerns, and other types of fiction. There are many other sets and collections. The Bison Press, Wildside Press and Penguin Books reprints are out there and are worth seeking out. Find the Ace The Howard Collector volume. Search, find, acquire, gloat that you have them. Wallow in the OCD.

And that’s not including the electronic versions out there. My Kindle has a collection of 99 Howard stories from various series as well as standalone pieces. And since I have a Kindle on my smart phone, I always have Howard with me for those times when I am waiting for a movie or a table at a restaurant. (Of course, my Kindle has a couple of hundred books on it!) There are many electronic collections out there. For free you can check out Project Gutenberg or manybooks.net which have a mix of stories available.

rehfoundationpress-fistsofironAnd I would be remiss if I do not address the work of the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press and the fabulous hardcover books they publish. Titles like Spicy Adventures and Tales of Weird Menace feature the more obscure stories, variants, outlines, and their history of writing and publication. And the four volume Fists of Iron is to die for. These are for the hardcore collector who wants it all. Check them out. True story here. When I first looked at them, I was at Howard Days at a time when I was unemployed and looking for work. I saw the books and I wanted them. I bought $300 of them at the show, I did not hesitate or think about it. I wanted them right then and I knew that if I hesitated I would regret it.

So, now if you have followed the guidelines, you have a roadmap for your collecting habits. There is a whole wide world of Robert E. Howard material waiting for you to step up and find it. Or, you could just go off-roading.

tumblr_m0j3lyVE0P1qbxxuao1_500The Texas of Robert E. Howard was scarcely a generation removed from its frontier heritage.

In May 1934, as Howard’s tale of Conan and Belit, “Queen of the Black Coast,” was on the stands in Weird Tales, a Texas lawman ran down the notorious Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker — Bonnie & Clyde. Frank Hamer tracked the outlaws down and led an ambush that riddled the couple with bullets on a Louisiana farm road.

Hamer was raised a Texas cowboy and got his start in law enforcement as a border-riding Texas Ranger on horseback. The big, powerful Ranger was involved in 52 gunfights as Texas rode bucking and kicking from the 19th into the 20th century.

There were quite a few men that stood with a boot in both centuries, who walked into the modern world with the carriage of a man of the frontier.

Bob Howard was proud to have made the acquaintance of one of these men.

“… in a little town on the plains I met a figure who links Texas with her wild old past,” he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft in 1930. “No less a personage than the great Norfleet, one of modern Texas’ three greatest gunmen — the other two being Tom Hickman and Manuel Gonzalles (sic.), captain and sergeant of the Rangers respectively.”

Tom Hickman and Manuel “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas were, indeed, first-rate gunmen. Hamer should have been on Howard’s list, too, but in 1930 his most famous exploit was yet to come. But who was “the great Norfleet”?

James Franklin Norfleet surely was a link with Texas’ wild old past. The son of a Comanche-fighting Texas Ranger, in his youth he had hunted the last buffalo herd in the Llano Estacado and then became a itinerate cowboy working the West Texas range.

Frank Norfleet was clean-living, hard-working and responsible, and in the 1890s he earned a position as foreman of the gigantic Spade Ranch owned by an absentee investor from Illinois named Isaac Ellwood — who would pioneer the manufacture of barbed wire.

In 1894, he met and married Mattie Eliza Hudgins, who moved with him out to the Spade. They had four children, only two of which survived to adulthood.

SpadeSaving his earnings as Spade foreman, Norfleet purchased land of his own, developed it, and raised cattle, mules, hogs, turkeys and a variety of crops. By the time he hit middle age, he was an independent rancher and had bootstrapped himself into considerable wealth.

And then he blew it.

On a trip to Dallas, Texas, to sell some mules, he fell prey to an elaborate con. A ring of five bunco artists set Norfleet up with a complicated combination of land sale and stock swindle, a con that is laid out in detail in Amy Reading’s delightful book “The Mark Inside.”

The con took Norfleet for $45,000, some of it borrowed from his brother-in-law. Worse yet, Norfleet had, in the midst of the con, also purchased land for $90,000 — debt he now had no hope of servicing. In present-day dollars, we’re looking at a cash loss of $560,000 and debt of over $1 million. Big problem.

Realizing what had befallen him, the rancher laid on his hotel-room bed with his mind reeling, a drumbeat pounding in his brain: “$45,000 gone; $90,000 in debt; 54 years old.”

But, being of Texas frontier stock, Norfleet came through his dark night of the soul not in despair but with determination: He would track down the conmen and give them a short, sharp dose of frontier justice.

First he had to go back to the home ranch and break the catastrophic news to Mattie. Tough as Frank, she gave her blessing to his quest — with one proviso: She wanted him to bring the crooks to the courts for trial. “Any fool can kill,” she said.

Following thin leads and rumors, J. Frank Norfleet embarked on a continent-crossing quest that defies credulity. And there’s every likelihood that Norfleet stretched the blanket a bit in telling his tale in his later autobiography. What Texas cowboy can resist making a tale a little taller? But the bones of the story check out in the record.

He found two members of the conman ring in San Bernadino, California, in jail for another scam. He accompanied them back to Fort Worth for trial and saw them sentenced to 10 years in the pen. One of them slashed his own throat rather than serving the time.

furey mugshotsThe man Norfleet wanted most was the ringleader, a longtime con with the picturesque name of Joe Furey. To lure him out, Norfleet set himself up as a rube, a mark, chumming the waters for the circling sharks.

It was a risky ploy. Norfleet got picked out for a con by Furey’s compatriots in Florida, but they got wise to him and Frank had to pull one of his four pistols to escape.

He almost caught Furey in Glendale, California, but the conman bribed two crooked cops to make his escape.

Norfleet finally ran him down, back in Florida, where the Texas rancher and his son Pete confronted the conman with cocked pistols in a restaurant. They got him back to Texas for trial, despite efforts by Furey’s criminal compatriots to spring him.

Nary a shot was fired.

Norfleet was noted as a dead shot, and, as noted above, during his private detective quest he was known to carry as many as four pistols on his person. Every once in a while, he had to pull one as a persuader or to get out of a tight spot. But despite Howard’s assertion that he was one of the great modern Texas gunmen, Norfleet never engaged in a single shootout.

In his letter, Howard states that, “he is now a United States Marshal and his latest exploit was in Chicago where he killed two gangsters who had the drop on him.”

The pulpster had that wrong — though it’s an irresistible image.

Howard described Norfleet accurately: “He is a small, stocky man, about five feet four, I should judge, of late middle age, with a scrubby white mustache and cold light blue eyes, the pupils of which are like pin points. He is a very courteous and soft spoken gentleman and I could not help but notice, as I shook hands with him, that his hands are not of the type usually found in men who are quick with weapons — his hands being very short and blocky in shape. Nor did he have that quick, nervous grip in handshaking that I have noticed in killers. His nerves are in perfect control but in his quick movements he reminds one of a cat, and like all gunfighters, he keeps his hands in constant motion and never very far from his gun.”

norfleet-67The great Norfleet was not quite the warrior Howard imagined him to be, but he was remarkable enough. He built a whole second career out of conning the conmen, luring them, manipulating them and bringing them in for the courts to handle. And he became a bit of a celebrity along the way. He published two editions of an autobiography and Wallace Beery, who once played Pancho Villa, played the role of Norfleet in a radio show.

Norfleet never entirely recovered financially from his 1919 losses, but he lived a satisfying life and retired quietly to a small West Texas farm, where he lived until his death at 102 in 1967.

One likes to imagine him gone to the happy hunting grounds, where he is currently on the trail of a certain Nigerian prince who needs you to help him get some money out of the country…

This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard's Texas, Weird Tales.

Strange-Tales-5

In the 1930s, a circle of weird pulp writers developed an interwoven correspondence, with prominent members including Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, E. Hoffmann Price, and Henry S. Whitehead. The exact correspondence varied according to the tastes of each, but they all participating in answering letters, circulating stories, lending books, artwork, and other materials, and of course sharing the latest news and leads regarding their mutual field of endeavor. One of the most intriguing sidelights of this mutual correspondence involved a particularly deranged fan, mentioned by Clark Ashton Smith in a letter to August Derleth dated 15 May 1932:

No word from Bates about my various stories. He sent me yesterday, however, a terrific communication from one G. P. Olsen of Sheldon, Iowa, which had been addressed to me in care of S.T. I’ve had letters from madmen before, but this one really took the gilt-edged angel-cake. Twelve single-spaced pages, much of it phrased with a lucidity almost equal to that of Gertrude Stein or Hegel. Among other things, as well as I could make it out, the fellow seemed to be desirous of correcting certain erroneous ideas about demons and vampires which he had discovered in “The Nameless Offspring.” Also, he wanted to point out the errors of Abdul Alhazred! Some of the stuff about vampires was really weird: “You never thought of a Vampire in your life but he appeared like an Emperor or an Archangel.” Then he exhorts me to refrain from putting vampires in a bad light, since, by virtue of a little blood-sucking, they really confer immortality on those they have chosen! Later, apropos of godknowswhat, he told me that “you must realize it will never be stood for if you act in any other way than that befitting a Spanish Don.” The letter is the damdest mixture of paranoia, delusions of grandeur and mystic delirium that ever went through the U.S. mails. The fellow writes of Ammon-Ra and Ahriman—a regular hash of Oriental mysticism—in the language of an illiterate Swede. He ends with something to the effect that his letter is the most momentous intellectual promulgation of the age. I’m not in the habit of ignoring letters; but there’s nothing else to be done in this case. (SLCAS 177)

“The Nameless Offspring” was published in the June 1932 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror (which often hit stands the month prior to the cover date), which was edited by Harry Bates. The mention of Alhazred refers to Smith’s “The Return of the Sorcerer” (ST Sep 1931, the premiere issue) so Olsen (or Olson, as Robert E. Howard wrote his name), must have been reading Strange Tales from the the start. The mention of vampires is odd, as neither of Smith’s stories features an actual vampire—”The Return of the Sorcerer” involves another form of undeath, and “The Nameless Offspring” a ghoul—but this appears to have been a characteristic obsession of Olsen, as detailed by Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde smith in May 1932:

I’ve gotten some more letters from that fool Olson, in Iowa. I could endure his lunacy, but his illiteracy gets on my nerves. This time he’s frothing at the mouth on account of my “Horror from the Mound”. He lashed himself into a perfect frenzy because I said a vampire was really dead. He says that there is no death in the first place, and that Christ was a vampire. Also that a vampire is in “reallity” an idealist, with an earth-gravity of 50 per cent. Whatever the hell that means. He says that I ought to be ashamed “tweesting” the facts around and “making the allmighty God look like the dirtiest devil from Hell.” He also says that he is going to “proove” the Medical Society is a pack of fools shortly. He alleges to “proove” his “prooves” by Einstein, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and other great scientists and philosophers. He seems to have the mysteries of life at his finger tips. Well, what the Hell. (CL 2.342-343)

popularfictionpublishingcompany-weird_tales_193205“The Horror from the Mound” appeared in the May 1932 issue of Weird Tales—Howard had, ironically, first submitted it to Strange Tales but it was rejected; he wouldn’t have a story in Strange Tales until June 1932. So it is reasonable that Olsen was a regular reader of WT as well as ST; Howard had previously addressed the subject of vampires in “The Moon of Skulls” (WT Jun-July 1930) and “Hills of the Dead” (WT Aug 1930), and Olsen had apparently previously written to Howard about the latter tale (CL 2.354, AMtF 1.292).

Howard’s story was, as described by Jeffrey Shanks and Mark Finn in “Vaqueros and Vampires in the Pulps: Robert E. Howard and the Dawn of the Undead West”, probably derived from Bram Stoker by way of Universal Pictures and Bela Lugosi. (UIW2 8-9) The vampire de Valdez would be familiar to contemporary readers, a suave nobleman vampire along the lines of Count Dracula; Olsen’s ideas of vampires, by contrast, are very atypical even by the pulp standards of 1932, not in keeping with traditional Eastern European folklore as used by Stoker in Dracula (1897) or Montague Summers’ Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928), or even the more occult notions of the vampire promoted by Helena Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled (1877).

Whatever Olsen’s immediate sources, his fan-letters appear to be a personal combination of occult metaphysics…and physics, as Howard recounts in a later letter to Clyde Smith:

More gems from Olson: “The A-Rama is Einstein A-Space, the B-Rama is brain or Brama, the C-Rama is Solar Plexus or Pain and in it’s cappacity of being organic Pain it is Visshnue the creator and the D-Rama is that thing we know as Drama, which is the four-armed ballance of Shiva the destroyer, being the basical gender in nature and being in effect also sex, since sex and ellementairy nature is the same thing actually, as soon as I explain it —–” “The chief thing Jesus tried to impress was that want is in itself allmight and that by means of training the mind for greater wants and the body to hold greater hungers, if anything hapens to the consciousness, the atoms hold the hunger and do not break in decay, accordingly as the stomack eats up the filler and the blood thins down, the person comes up with high hungers and if he is a fool he is then a vampire.” “Accordingly, no vampire, however vampirally ignorant he may be, can possibly be as vampirical as yourself and all the people of the earth, since not knowing this, you account not at all the strict code that is Mrs. Cornelius VanderBilt or Mrs. Astor or that of any Duke or Duchess of the world — Why do you suppose that a Duke considers that he may withouth regrets pierce with his sword a man that refuses to pay him respect — A man that refuses to stop and utterly postphone the filling of his hungers the instance the Duke appears in the vicinity?” He also sends me a damnable chain letter and tells me I dare not refuse to continue the chain. Like hell I don’t. I might excuse his insanity, but writers of chain-letters are a blight and a stumbling block on the road of progress. (CL 2.350-351)

This rant at least contains a few more recognizable elements—”Brama” (Bhrama), ”Visshnue” (Vishnu) and Shiva are deities in the Hindu religion, and form a divine trinity; the forehead and solar plexus are typically associated with chakras in tantric yoga, and so suggest Olsen was tapping into Indian or Theosophical materials. The reference to Einstein’s “A-Space” is vague, but appears to be an interpretation of Einstein notation with regards to his theory of General Relativity—although I’ve yet to find a source that uses the exact nomenclature, Einstein notation does involve the use of vectors. Howard, in a letter now lost, apparently communicated something of Olsen to Lovecraft, who replied on 7 May:

As for this Olson—I haven’t ever been honoured by his direct attention, but I have seen some of the letters with which he has been pestering poor Whitehead during the last few months. It appears that he is quite a notorious nuisance among ‘scientifiction’ writers, especially those contributing to the Clayton magazines. he is—in the opinion of Bates, Whitehead (who has had some experience as a psychiatrist) and myself—a genuine maniac; though we don’t know whether or not he is under actual restraint. He may be a relatively harmless case living with his family—though none the less wholly emented in certain directions. He has been giving Whitehead long and frantic lectures on “vectors”, and “A, B, and C-space”. It seems there is something especially sinister and menacing about C—space—so that it will bring about the end of the world very shortly unless all living sages get busy and call in the aid of the “Vectors”. Olson also has some startling and unique biological theories. According to him, the blood is not the life but the death. It is our blood which makes us die—and therefore, since food makes blood, the one simple way to become immortal is to discontinue the use of food! Poor devil—I suppose he is an ignorant, weak-brained fellow who saturated himself with odds and ends of popular occult and scientific lore either before or after the crucial thread of sanity snapped. As Whitehead says, there is nothing to do but ignore the letters of a case like that. (AMtF 1.287)

Whitehead had published stories in both Strange Tales and Weird Tales in the months leading up to May 1932, none of which involve vampires per se, although “Cassius” (ST Nov 1931) comes close. What other writers Olsen made a nuisance of himself of is open to speculation; based solely on what we know of his interests and the magazines he read, likely victims include those whose vampire stories earned the front cover, such as Kirk Mashburn (“Placide’s Wife,” WT Nov 1931; “The Vengeance of Ixmal,” WT Mar 1932) and Hugh B. Cave (“The Brotherhood of Blood,” WT May 1932), though any of the Strange Tales or Weird Tales writers would likely be fair game; and apparently August Derleth was on the receiving end of Olsen’s intentions (SLCAS 289). Robert E. Howard replied to Lovecraft in a letter dated 24 May 1932:

Poor Olson — what you say of him clinches my conclusion that he is completely insane. I first heard from him a long time ago when he wrote commenting on my “Hills of the Dead”; favorably, by the way. “The Horror from the Mound” seems to have enraged him. He hasn’t pulled any “C-Space” or “vectors” on me, though he has had considerable to say about “Ramas” A,B,C, etc.. Neither has he given me the secret of immortality, though he has hinted darkly at it. I’ve never answered any of his letters, though the impulse has been strong to reply with a missive that would make his ravings sound like the prosaic theorizings of a professor fossilized in conventions. But it would be a poor thing to make game of the unfortunate soul. (CL 2.354, AMtF 1.292)

Howard also passed along an abbreviated version of Lovecraft’s record of Olsen’s rantings to Clyde Smith. (CL 2.369) More interesting, perhaps, is that Clark Ashton Smith continued to hear from Olsen, as Lovecraft duly passed on to Howard in a letter dated 8 June 1932:

As for the cracked and ubiquitous Olson—Clark Ashton Smith has been hearing from him now. He is fairly frothing at the mouth over what he considers Smith’s disrespectful treatment of vampires—who, he argues, are the saviours of the world because they take away the blood which forms the death of us all! Obviously, the poor fellow’s epistles admit of no reply. All one can do is to let him keep on writing—which doubtless relieves his agitated and disordered emotions. (AMtF 1.307)

Olsen continued to be a point of discussion for Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith; while their complete correspondence has not yet been published (Hippocampus Press is currently working on the volume, to be titled Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, to be edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz), we do have some intriguing fragments of their conversation. In a November 1933 letter to Lovecraft, Smith wrote:

Olsen, as you wisely say, is a totally different matter; megalomania, dementia, mystic delirium and whatnot were all scrambled together in the one interminable screed he wrote me. (SLCAS 236)

Lovecraft apparently came to Olsen’s attention after “The Dreams in the Witch-House” was published in the July 1932 Werid Tales, and received his own letter—much like Smith, Howard’s, and Whitehead’s in content, though apparently too offering the “secret of immortality” which Howard said he had hinted at. Lovecraft forwarded the letter to Smith, who replied on 4 December 1933:

The Olsen letter, which I return, is most illuminating. Someone, I forget whom, has fathered a book on the sort of cosmogony at which O. is apparently driving. Of course, if you accept the idea that the earth’s surface is really the inside of a sphere surrounding the negligible remainder of the cosmos, then the space-conceptions implied in your Witchhouse story are most egregiously fallacious. The letter is really a marvel of lucidity compared to the 10 or twelve page monograph on the nobility of ghouls, vampires et al which I received from Olsen in correction of my “Nameless Offspring” and the errors of Abdul Alhazred. It would seem that the bats in Olsen’s belfry—or the spirochetae in his spinal column—are less gyrationally active than of yore. However, it is plain that he has not relinquished his position of mentor-in-chief to the Weird Tales contributors! His offer to instruct you in person for 25 paltry pazoors is truly magnanimous not to say magnific. (SLCAS 242-243)

The “Hollow Earth” theory has been around in one form or another for centuries, and by the early 20th century was the domain of cranks, occultists, and fiction writers—he might possibly have been thinking of Marshall Gardner’s A Journey to the Earth’s Interior (1913, revised 1920). “Spirochetae” is a reference to syphilis, with Smith implying that Olsen was suffering from advanced stages of the disease, which can cause delusions and hallucinations; obviously, the Californian never knew that Lovecraft’s father had died of neurosyphilis (and it is unknown if Lovecraft himself was aware of the exact nature of his father’s terminal illness). Smith repeated the assertion in a letter to August Derleth dated 13 April 1937:

As for me, I’ll never forget the letters from that paretic Swede, Olsen; one of which letters corrected at great length certain mistaken notions of Abdul Alhazred. But I remember also that you had some experience with Olsen and his patents of infernal and grandiose nobility! (SLCAS 289)

From that point on, Olsen apparently became a familiar enough touchstone to be mentioned in passing in Lovecraft’s letters (LRBO 256), but was rarely mentioned.

Other than these fragments, we know very little about this individual; no Olson or Olsen with those initials is listed on the 1930 or 1940 US census for Sheldon, Iowa. There is currently no evidence of letters from Olsen before 1930 or after 1933, at least in the published correspondence of Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, & co., nor have I yet turned up any regular fan-letters in the letter-columns of Weird Tales or Strange Tales. Probably there’s some truth to Lovecraft’s assessment that Olsen “saturated himself with odds and ends of popular occult and scientific lore”—what with the disparate homebrewed mix of vampirology, Christian apocrypha, Einsteinian physics, Theosophy or Hindu religion, and Hollow Earth Theory—Olsen certainly qualifies as one of the weirdest correspondents in a weird circle.

Works Cited

AMtF               A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press, 2 vols.)

CL                   Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (REH Foundation Press, 3 vols. + Index and Addenda)

LRBO              Letters to Robert Bloch and Others (Hippocampus Press)

SLCAS            Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith (Arkham House)

UIW2               Undead in the West II: They Just Keep Coming (Scarecrow Press)

SKULL_FACE

Howard anniversaries, by their very nature, tend to come along thick and fast. Alongside everything else which is worth commemorating this year it shouldn’t be forgotten that 2016 marks the seventieth anniversary of the publication of Skull-Face and Others, arguably the most important collection of Howard’s work ever compiled.

Strange to consider that it is a book which is now as old as the United Nations, similarly superseded in so many ways but whose importance can likewise never be eclipsed.

The discovery of Skull-Face and Others was, at one time, a pivotal development in a Howard fan’s education. And for Howard collectors the acquiring of a copy of the original Arkham House edition remains a rite of passage. Every copy seems to come with a story of some sort attached to it, be it one of astronomical expense or unbelievable thrift. For what it’s worth my own copy came courtesy of a stallholder at a London pulp fair who told me that he had got it from his father who had once been a New York City taxi driver. His father claimed to have salvaged it from a fly-tip of dumped books on some Big Apple waste ground. I have no idea if the tale is true or not – more likely another New York tall story – but it remains indicative of the sort of mystique and urban mythmaking that continues to attach itself to the book.

derlethWhen August Derleth compiled the book – almost under protest it is often said – he can scarcely have dreamed, even in his wildest nightmares, of the vast array of imitations it would ultimately engender. Even when he died in 1971 the quantity of books by Howard that were then available was relatively modest. He passed away without any serious cause to doubt his conviction that, despite acknowledged potential, Howard was essentially a facile entertainer – albeit an adept one – doomed to be eventually forgotten along with the other 99% of the hacks who had once labored at the rock face of the pulps. In his estimation the very process of putting together what he came to term a “memorial volume” was tantamount to erecting a headstone to Howard’s career, one every bit as unequivocal as its equivalent in Greenleaf Cemetery. As has become palpably self-evident over time we now know that the ending of Howard’s life was but the beginning of his reputation. He has been re-evaluated, reappraised, rediscovered and reassessed so many times over the intervening years that it can sometimes seem as if he never died at all. And yet despite the vast publishing edifice we now all have access to the fact remains that Derleth’s jaundiced and grudging compilation remains the foundation stone for it all. This is both its greatest cachet and its single biggest flaw.

Arkham-TheDarkManandOthersIt has long been an amusing pastime amongst Howard fans to compile lists of his best and/or most important stories. One list seldom chimes with another in all but a minority of indisputably seminal tales. For that reason there seems little point or profit in challenging Derleth’s own idiosyncratic selection for Skull-Face and Others. Although I daresay I can’t be the only one over the years to have scratched his head and wonder how stories such as “Pigeons from Hell” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” could be deemed good enough for inclusion in The Dark Man and Others and yet not match the same merit for inclusion in the memorial volume as “Rattle of Bones” and “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Or to dispute why it was considered necessary to include two Solomon Kane stories that are, ostensibly, as similar in nature as “The Hills of the Dead” and “Wings in the Night” when either would have sufficed leaving room for something else. But these are exercises in futility. The book is what it is rather than what it might have been and so must be assessed as such.

As things stand the contents remain perfectly adequate and understandable. The poems and the character sketches by Lovecraft and Price are nice touches which compliment the fiction well. Although, personally, I find it very hard to read the Price appreciation nowadays without thinking of the crabby old misanthrope he was to become; one forever grouching over subsequent generations’ obsession with dead pulp writers whilst perpetually living off of his own recollections of them.

The real problem with the book lies in Derleth’s arbitrary decision to restrict himself solely to Howard’s weird fiction for choice of inclusion. By doing so whatever benefit the book gains in reflecting the span of Howard’s career it loses in the denial of his versatility. One may argue that Arkham House was a weird fiction specialist and as such Derleth was simply catering to his customer base. But Derleth was perfectly well aware that, unlike his beatified Lovecraft, there was a lot more to Howard than a good weird yarn. His own introduction makes the point of acknowledging Howard’s interest and late divergence into western lore. He even postulates the possibility of work of importance eventually arising out of it: (as a regionalist himself Derleth would naturally equate such material as important but it seems odd to dismiss entertainments as unimportant by implication when he has just devoted half his introduction to defending the legitimacy of pulp writing). And yet despite this concession there is almost nothing in the book to reinforce the opinion except for a solitary comedy western included almost as a sop to the idea that there might just be more to Howard than gore and ghosts. By neglecting wholesale Howard’s brilliant excursions into historical fiction, marginalizing his gift for humor and disregarding vast swathes of his output it was Derleth, more than anyone else, who effectively pigeonholed Howard as a mere fantasist for decades afterwards. As a consequence this inflicted incalculable damage upon his reputation simply as a writer first and foremost.

manchess_conanIt might even be argued that the later regrettable pre-eminence of Conan was a direct result of Derleth affording the character undue prominence in the book. Certainly the character had been popular at one time, but that was ten years and more in the past, and surely the purpose of the book was to preserve the best of Howard’s work rather than simply his most successful. If that had been the case then why wasn’t a Costigan or Elkins story included? Derleth himself clearly didn’t rate the Conan stories very much and so one must query why he allocated space to no less than five Conan adventures, particularly when only one of his choices warranted inclusion on literary merit alone.

There is nothing inherently wrong or disreputable about being remembered solely as a fantasy writer. Most authors would give their right arms to be remembered for anything at all, period. But Howard had more than just the one string to his bow and Derleth’s short sightedness denied him the right to be judged on his versatility.

And yet whatever its faults and failings the fact is that Skull-Face and Others remains to this day the quintessential Howard collection. I have it in its Arkham, Spearman and Panther editions, and if my house was burning down it is the Howard volume I would elect to rescue over all others. Although I can’t claim I wouldn’t be fussy about which version I chose to save. That really would be a fantasy story.

Arkham6d90aca4b6da2b7f42ebfe8a01a5f9b5

By the way, I recently took the liberty of using your mythical “Arkham” in a single-stanza rhyme which Mr. Wright accepted for Weird Tales, and which fell far short of doing justice to it’s subject. Here it is:

Arkham.

Drowsy and dull with age the houses blink

On aimless streets the rat-gnawed years forget—

But what inhuman figures leer and slink

Down the old alleys when the moon has set?

– Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 Dec 1931 (AMtF 1.238, CL2.280)

What did Robert E. Howard know of Arkham, which caused him to compose this quatrain? What might he have known? By December 1931, Lovecraft had published less than a dozen stories that mentioned the fictional town, which comprised what he sometimes called his “Arkham cycle.” (SL2.246) Most of these were published in Weird Tales, and many of them we can be sure by comments in his letters that Howard had read.

Weird_Tales_1924-01The eponymous dwelling of “The Picture in the House” (National Amateur Jul 1919, Weird Tales Jan 1924) was set in “an apparently abandoned road which I had chosen as the shortest cut to Arkham,” and places the town in New England. Howard had apparently missed this story when it came out, but Lovecraft apparently later sent him a copy. (AMtF 1.85, 97; CL2.93, 118)

“The Festival” (WT Jan 1925), Howard did read (AMtF 1.159; CL2.179), though as a locale it is set mainly in Kingsport until the very end, when the narrator ends up in St. Mary’s Hospital, where the kindly staff were helpful enough to borrow the copy of the Necronomicon from nearby Miskatonic University for his perusal.

“The Unnamable” (WT Jul 1925) also mentions St. Mary’s Hospital, but adds an “old burying ground” with “a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb.” While Lovecraft is not known to have ever sent Howard a copy of his street plan for Arkham, he did have a very definite geography developed in his imagination while writing of the place, one readers get a sense of in lines describing “a lonely field beyond Meadow Hill, a mile from the old burying ground, on a spot where an ancient slaughterhouse is reputed to have stood.”

One of the fuller descriptions of the land around Arkham was given in “The Colour Out of Space” (Amazing Stories Sep 1927), which opens with:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods no axe has ever cut. There are narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooks trickle without ever having caught the first glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but they are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.

It is not entirely clear if Howard ever read this story, as there are no mentions of it in his letters, but Lovecraft mentions it in his letters to Howard from time to time. (AMtF 2.533, 582, 656; SL4.170)

The “Colour” described Arkham as “a very old town full of witch legends,” but it was in “The Silver Key” (WT Jan 1929) that Lovecraft grows fulsom about the old town’s history, describing it as “the terrible witch-haunted old town of his forefathers in New England, and had experiences in the dark, amidst the hoary willows and tottering gambrel roofs.” This of course helps to point out Arkham as corresponding closely with Salem and its famous witch-trials, something that Lovecraft himself would confirm in an early note to Howard: “Old Salem with its spectral memories (the prototype of my fictional ‘Arkham’) is only about 60 miles from Providence.” (AMtF 1.31)

dunwich-horrorThe Arkham Advertiser, the town newspaper, first made an appearance in “The Dunwich Horror” (WT Apr 1929); and Howard certainly read that story. (AMtF 1.17; CL2.50) While little of the town is described, much of the action centers around the Library of Miskatonic University. Howard, living in Cross Plains and having attended Howard Payne College in Brownwood, would at least have some impression of a college town in a rural district. Miskatonic University and the Arkham Advertiser would likewise appear in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (WT Aug 1931); Howard “went thirty miles to get the new magazine” (probably to Brownwood) and read it straight away. (AMtF 1.180-1, 205; CL2.220-1, 223)

The last story that would appear in Weird Tales before Howard probably composed “Arkham” was “The Strange High House in the Mist” (WT Oct 1931), where the eponymous house was located on a cliff such that “only the western side, inland and toward Arkham, remained.” Here we also get a brief description of “[…] a lovely vista of Arkham’s white Georgian steeples across leagues of river and meadow. Here he found a shady road to Arkham […]” Howard praised the story claiming:

It’s pure poetry of the highest order, and like all great poetry, stirs dim emotions and slumbering instincts deep in the wells of consciousness. (AMtF 1.217; CL2.256)

Weird_Tales_March_1942So much for the published references to Arkham that Howard might have seen; it is unlikely the man from Cross Plains had ever run across “Howard West—Reanimator,” unless Lovecraft had lent him a copy, and if Lovecraft did there is no mention of it. Of course, by 1931 the Texan was on the “circulation list” for drafts of Lovecraft’s stories, which included the then-unpublished novella At the Mountains of Madness (AMtF 1.231; CL2.273, 274), concerning an antarctic expedition from Miskatonic University, sailing out aboard the Arkham.

There is a possibility that Howard may have read “The Port” (“Ten miles from Arkham I had struck the trail”) one of Lovecraft’s sonnets in the Fungi from Yuggoth cycle. Lovecraft had sent along at least some of the poems; probably the typescript, but possibly a collection of excerpts from those that had been published at this point. Howard does not specifically mention “The Port” among his favorites, but it would remain a potential influence. (AMtF 1.32; CL2.61)

Slight though it is, this was likely all that Howard knew of Arkham—the rest being not published or available to him—and it is not so hard to trace some of the imagery in his poem, and at a time when Howard was already experimenting with a “Lovecraftian” style, such as expressed in “The Black Stone” (WT Nov 1931) Lovecraft himself was enthusiastic in the poem’s reception:

Your “Arkham” stanza is splendid, and I feel honoured that my imaginary city of brooding horror should have evoked such an image. Glad Wright took it, and hope you’ll have more verse for him before long. (AMtF 1.246)

Works Cited

AMtF   A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols., Hippocampus Press)

CL       The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda, Robert E. Howard Foundation)

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

girasol-WeirdTales-July1925

Robert E. Howard was an avid reader of Weird Tales, the famous fantasy pulp magazine that was launched in the spring of 1923. He may have seen the first issue of the magazine while studying in Brownwood. The issues of Weird Tales usually appeared a month earlier than their cover date would suggest. Howard’s first known mention of Weird Tales was in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith (July 7, 1923):

I sent a story to the Weird Tales, ‘The Phantom of Old Egypt,’ which I suppose they will turn down.

While it is well known that living in Cross Plains, Howard could not always buy the current issue — still it is reasonable to assume he read most of the issues. In a letter to Carl Jacobi (March 22, 1932), he mentions the nearest first-class newsstand (in Brownwood) is forty miles away:

It was not my fortune to read either of the other stories you mentioned; in fact, I live so far out of civilization, as it were, that 1 can’t keep track of the magazines very well. It’s forty miles to the nearest first-class news-stand, so my magazine reading is rather desultory.

In this post I single out some Weird Tales stories that probably influenced Howard on what he chose to write in that particular month. Occasionally I also mention stories whose influences were more long-term.

Howard sent a letter to Weird Tales, ca. January 1926, where he praised Seabury Quinn’s stories of the occult detective Jules de Grandin:

These are sheer masterpieces. The little Frenchman is one of those characters who live in fiction. I look forward with pleasurable anticipation to further meetings with him.

Years later Howard also tried his hands in detective fiction, although his most famous detective, Steve Harrison, operates quite differently than de Grandin. Robert M. Price thinks the name “Harrison” could be a tip of the hat to de Grandin’s base of operations in Harrisonville, and River Street (where many Steve Harrison tales take place) could have been suggested by the Harrisonville River.

The appearance of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales, February 1928) was a critical importance in the development of the young Texan’s career. Deuce Richardson in his essay “The Call of Kathulos: Kull, Skull and ‘Call'” has already pointed out the similarities between Lovecraft’s tale and some of Howard’s stories written just after its appearance, or within a few months.

Howard sent a letter to The Eyrie, which was published in Weird Tales, ca. April 1928:

Mr. Lovecraft’s latest story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, is indeed a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature.

A scholar named Kuthulos is a protagonist of “The Cat and the Skull” and “The Screaming Skull of Silence,” both tales written in the spring of 1928, and subsequently rejected by Weird Tales. It is possible the name Kuthulos came from the title of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” which appeared in Weird Tales at the start of the year. The second tale has even more similarities with the Lovecraft story. Like the sailors in HPL’s tale, Kull and his entourage are faced with a castellated tomb with a cosmic monster that is not dead but dreaming for aeons. Just as R’lyeh was found to be of “greenish stone,” Kull and his men find a gong and mallet “apparently of jade.” In both cases, a cosmic menace is dealt a crippling (perhaps mortal) blow.

Ken-Kelly-Original-Oil-Painting-Tomb-of-Deception-“Skull-Face” (Weird Tales, Oct/Nov/Dec 1929), written in the fall of 1928 shows also influences from Lovecraft’s story: the use of the first person, the technique of story within the story, the importance of the sea and the secrets hidden in its depths.

Surama, the resurrected Atlantean villain of Lovecraft’s revision story “The Last Test” (Weird Tales, Nov 1928), bears a curious likeness to Kathulos in many ways. Howard probably read this story around the same time as he wrote “Skull-Face.”

Lovecraft’s influence, and especially of his tale “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales, April 1930), can be seen in a lot of stories REH pounded out on his faithful Underwood No. 5 in the second part of 1930, after starting his correspondence with the older writer in the summer. These tales include “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” (Weird Tales, December 1936), “Dig Me No Grave” (Weird Tales, February 1937), “The Black Stone” (Weird Tales, November 1931), “The Thing on the Roof” (Weird Tales, Feburary 1932) and “The Hoofed Thing” (rejected by Strange Tales). The many references to HPL’s stories and emerging mythology are well attested to and lie outside the scope of this blog post.

But another story was published in the summer, whose influence may be similarly important, Harry Noyes Pratt’s “The Curse of Ximu-tal” (Weird Tales, August 1930). Here, inspired by a jade image of a giant snake, the narrator discovers a Mayan temple and a giant green snake that could swallow an elephant. Many Conan stories feature giant snakes, cities built of jade-like green-stone with names beginning with a “X” (Xuchotl, Xuthal, Xapur).

It is probably after reading Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales, August 1931) that Howard had decided to change his conception of the Black Stone: his new stories written in the fall, “People of the Dark” (Strange Tales, June 1932) and “Worms of the Earth” (Weird Tales, November 1932) feature a small stone instead of a monolith, as in “The Black Stone.”

The March 1932 issue of Weird Tales featured a story that had repercussions three years later, when REH wrote his last Conan tale, “Red Nails” (Weird Tales, Jul/Aug/Sep/Oct 1936). In Kirk Mashburn’s “The Vengeance of Ixmal” (Weird Tales, March 1932) the American leader of an excavation near a vampire-haunted village in Mexico turns out to be the reincarnation of an Aztec Prince, who was sacrificed on an altar by his lover princess Tascala. “Red Nails” has many Aztecian-sounding names and a princess called Tascela. We know REH had read and liked Mashburn’s stories, as noted in his letter to Mashburn, ca. March 1932:

Mr. Price mentions you often in his letters, and I have been much interested in your work in Weird Tales. I particularly remember “Tony”, “Sola”, “Placide’s Wife”, and your recent “Vengeance of Ixmal” — a powerful tale.

The April 1932 issue of Weird Tales (on sale April 1st) contained a story that could have been a springboard of REH’s reincarnation tales featuring James Allison. In Nictzin Dyalhis’s “The Red Witch” (Weird Tales, April 1932) scientist Randall Crone becomes conscious of his ancient life in an Ice Age tribe as the impetuous young warrior, Ron Kron, in love with the red-haired Red Dawn.

Howard’s first completed reincarnation story was “The Children of the Night” (Weird Tales, Apr/May 1931), which he wrote in September 1930. In that tale O’Donnel is struck unconscious by an accidental axe blow and drifts out of the darkness to find himself as a warrior of a primitive Celtic tribe in pre-Roman Britain fighting against the reptilian Children of the Night. In October 1931 Howard writes “People of the Dark” (Strange Tales, June 1932) where an accidental head injury leads John into a past life as Conan the Reaver, a Gaelic pirate. The reincarnation theme is also present in his poem “Cimmeria,” written in February 1932.

REH completed his first James Allison story, “Marchers of Valhalla,” in April of 1932. Allison lies at the end of a short and sickly life in rural Texas, but remembers a previous incarnation as a mighty yellow-haired warrior, Hialmar. Much has been written about how Jack London’s novel, The Star Rover has influenced the creation of James Allison, but the Dyalhis story could have been the final impetus for REH to start the James Allison series, where for the first time his reincarnated hero is living in the Ice Age and is in love with a gold-haired girl.

The story was rejected by Weird Tales in May. But it did not discourage Howard, who in a few weeks’ time completes “The Valley of the Worm” (Weird Tales, Feb 1934), one of his most famous stories, featuring the Æsir warrior Niord.

REH had created Conan the Cimmerian and wrote the first stories featuring the Cimmerian in February and March of 1932. According to Patrice Louinet, REH had written the third Conan story, “The God in the Bowl” (rejected by Weird Tales) in March. The story shows remarkable similarities to Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Gorgon” in the April issue, which theoretically appeared only at the start of April. In both stories a beautiful, but deadly, mythical entity kills an art collector. It could be just a strange coincidence, or perhaps REH somehow read Smith’s story previously.  REH and Smith have not started correspondence yet, and while it is possible Lovecraft had sent Howard this tale, it is not mentioned in REH’s correspondence.

The publication of Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales, May 1932) coincides with REH’s writing of “The Scarlet Citadel” (Weird Tales, January 1933). Smith story taking place in a subterranean catacomb with deadly monsters (in his case brain-sucking leeches) could have influenced REH when created the catacombs beneath the Citadel.

In the spring of 1934 Howard was immersed in writing his only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (Weird Tales, December 1935, Jan/Feb/Mar/Apr 1936). A source for the scenes in the Stygian pyramid may have been Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Charnel God” (Weird Tales, March 1934), with a temple for the dead, ghouls (the Khitan sorcerers are described as ghoulish by REH) and reanimation of corpses. We know REH admired the story as stated in a letter to CAS in May of 1934:

Yes, I certainly did like “The Charnel God” and its fine illustration, and the Malygris story came up to expectations splendidly. In some ways I liked the illustration even better than that of “The Charnel God”, though both were fine.

As an aside, both “The Charnel God,” (Weird Tales, March 1934), and “The Death of Malygris,” (Weird Tales, April 1934) were illustrated by CAS.

These are just a handful of instances where Howard “borrowed” ideas and concepts from his fellow Weird Tales writers in the pages of The Unique Magazine.

Sources:

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis: Notes on the Creation of the Conan Stories” (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, May 2002)

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis Part II: Notes on the Creation of the Conan Stories” (The Bloody Crown of Conan, May 2003)

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis Part III” (The Conquering Sword of Conan, December 2005)

Robert M. Price: “The Many Incarnations of Anton Zarnak,” in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak Supernatural Sleuth (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 2002)

Deuce Richardson: “The Call of Kathulos: Kull, Skull and ‘Call'”(The Cimmerian website, February 11, 2009).

The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2007-2008).

  • To Tevis Clyde Smith, July 7, 1923
  • To Weird Tales, ca. January 1926
  • To Weird Tales, ca. April 1928
  • To Kirk Mashburn, ca. March 1932
  • To Carl Jacobi, pm, March 22, 1932
  • To Clark Ashton Smith, pm, May 21 1934

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Another enjoyable Howard Days has come and gone, and it is safe to say that any who attended were glad they did.  The number of attendees on June 10th and 11th seemed to be a bit above average, reflecting a trend toward straining the capacity of current venues and program formats.  The panel audiences are already larger than could be served by formerly used facilities like the Cross Plains Library and the Howard House Pavilion.  Panels this year were held at the CP High School and the CP Senior Center.  Many new faces were evident at the banquet in the Community Center.  The weather was hot but otherwise pleasant, though mosquito repellent was sometimes required.

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The day before the festivities began, the staff of the Cross Plains Review newspaper kindly offered a tour of their old facilities, complete with antique printing press and other equipment.  Original copies of editions containing articles about or by Robert E. Howard were on display.

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On Friday, following the bus tour of the CP area hosted by Project Pride veteran Don Clark, a panel composed of Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, and Susan McNeel-Childers discussed the first 30 years of Howard Days celebrations.  REHupans Burke and Vern Clark made an initial foray to Cross Plains in 1985.  Impressed by the wide open spaces of Texas and even more by how imaginative Howard must have been to have envisioned stories in such settings, Burke thought that other serious fans might be lured to visit Cross Plains, and so organized a trip there the next year by ten REHupans, including Cavalier and Glenn Lord.  The Friends of the Library, headed by Joan McCowen, gave a gracious reception to those they called international scholars on June 6th, which the mayor proclaimed to be “Robert Howard Day.”  Those the visitors talked to included Cross Plains Review editor Jack Scott, head librarian Billie Ruth Loving, REH heirs Alla Ray Kuykendall and Alla Ray Morris, and Charlotte Laughlin of Howard Payne University in Brownwood.  Laughlin would act to preserve what remained of REH’s personal book collection that his father had donated to HPU and which now resides in the Howard House.  Seeing the commercial possibilities in attracting more such visitors, the founding members of Project Pride (originally created to spruce up the downtown area of Cross Plains) bought the Howard House in 1989, which Project Pride then renovated and operated as a museum with the aid of donations.  Alla Ray Morris contributed $10,000 to Project Pride just before her death in 1995. The money was used to install central heat and air conditioning and to remodel the inside of the house. Project Pride also received a portion of Alla Ray’s estate and that money was used to build the pavilion next to the house and finish the remodeling. The pavilion was completed in 2000 and dedicated to Alla Ray. By that time Howard Days had become an annual 2-day event organized by Project Pride and REHupa, who have done so much to welcome and educate fans of the Texas author and to change the once-low opinion of many of the residents regarding Howard and his admirers.

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Guest of Honor Michael Scott Myers spoke at the banquet and was interviewed by REHupan Mark Finn at a Friday panel marking the 20th anniversary of the film The Whole Wide World, which Myers had adapted from the memoir One Who Walked Alone, written by Howard’s sometime girlfriend Novalyne Price Ellis.  Myers was a speech student of Ellis during her last years at Louisiana State University.  As a movie publicist, Myers saw the potential in making a small independent film based on her book, but many individual factors have to align before such a movie can be made.  Myers optioned the book for $20 and wrote the script between 1989 and 1994.  Director Dan Ireland and the actor portraying REH, Vincent D’Onofrio were on board early on.  Replacing actress Olivia d’Abo, who had become pregnant, in Novalyne’s part was Renee Zellweger in her first major role.  TWWW was filmed over 3 and a half weeks in the summer of 1996 for $1.2M.  While it did well at the Sundance Film Festival, an unfavorable release date held the film back until positive reviews led to its success on home video and cable TV.  It served as many people’s introduction to REH, and the film helped to bring a less narrow, more nuanced, and very human portrayal of the author to the fan public.  Ellis did see and enjoy the movie.  After the interview, TWWW was screened in the high school auditorium.

The Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards were bestowed Friday afternoon.  The winners are spotlighted elsewhere on this blog.

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REHupans Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, and Jeffrey Shanks staged another of their always entertaining “Fists at the Ice House” presentations outdoors at the site where Howard boxed with his friends and locals.  This sport, REH’s part in it, and his boxing fiction were the subjects.  Experts on these stories, the speakers recommended them highly to all.  Even if one is not into the sport, the surprisingly good humor of the yarns will be enough to get one through them.  And Howard’s enthusiasm and versatility shed light on important aspects of the author’s personality that one might have no clue about if one is familiar only with his fantasy tales.  Howard’s boxing and boxing stories served as vital releases for the pressures and frustrations that were dogging him at the time.

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The first panel on Saturday concerned REH and artist Frank Frazetta, who painted the covers of most of the Lancer Conan paperbacks of the late 1960s which did so much to attract readers to Howard’s fiction.  The panelists were REHupans Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, Gary Romeo, and Jeff Shanks.  Cavalier called the publication of Conan the Adventurer the single most significant event in the history of Howard publishing and the one that drew him in personally.  Shanks noted that this was the 50th anniversary of that event.  Frazetta had illustrated comic books, but it was his covers of Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks that got him noticed.  Frazetta’s artistic resonance with the material made for an impressive product that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Burke said that the Conan stories had come out earlier in book form as Arkham House and Gnome Press hardbacks.  Writer L. Sprague de Camp was a fan of REH and, working with agent Oscar Friend, took on the editing of the Conan reprints.  Romeo explained that de Camp assiduously shopped the stories to publishers, finally hooking Lancer’s Larry Shaw, as well as Frazetta by letting him keep the ownership of his art.  Romeo thinks that Frazetta’s art was a big part of Conan’s appeal, but not as much as the prose itself.  Burke added that, though you can’t judge a book by its cover, the cover can be important in providing an essential good first impression of and introduction to the character.  Shanks observed that, even though the images were static, Frazetta’s dynamic, exciting poses were a game changer for fantastic art.

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