[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted October 25, 2007, at thecimmerian.com; this version lightly edited.]
The process by which Robert E. Howard named his settings and characters has been a topic of discussion since H. P. Lovecraft chided him for using thinly disguised historical names in his fantasies. L. Sprague de Camp disapproved of this practice as well and, in Dark Valley Destiny, added, “Because of his linguistic naiveté, or perhaps because he simply refused to take the time and trouble, [Howard] tends to give his characters names that are often unpleasing and confusingly similar.” Modern scholars give Howard a bit more credit, saying that he was purposeful in selecting vaguely historic names for the connotations they would convey. I’ll leave this discussion to the Big Brains, but I do have some fuel for the fire.
Back in “Curly Elkins of Bear-Tooth Creek” (The Cimmerian V3n4), I discussed the differences between “A Elkins Never Surrenders,” a Breckinridge Elkins tale, and its rewritten form, “A Elston to the Rescue” (aka “The Curly Wolf of Sawtooth,” Star Western, September 1936), starring one Bearfield Elston. The changes went beyond simple Elkins to Elston switches, affecting the characterization of the main character. A simple curiosity, or so I thought.
Recently, I had the opportunity to examine some early drafts of various Howard stories; one of them being “The Dead Remember” (Argosy, August 15, 1936). I received two different typescripts for the story: one was an early draft, the other, stamped “copy,” was almost identical to the published version. Amidst various punctuation changes and minor word alterations was an interesting name switch—Elkins to Elston.
Now, maybe I’m the only Howard-head who finds these little items interesting—probably not, but the discovery that “John Elkins,” the trail boss in the early draft of “The Dead Remember,” had been changed to “John Elston” in the later version was quite intriguing. Was Howard working on “A Elkins Never Surrenders” at the same time as “The Dead Remember”? Did he change “John Elkins” to “Elston” to avoid confusion? What? I guess we’ll never know.