The Birth of a Writer

[By Rob Roehm. Originally published in Onion Tops #79, REHupa mailing 280.]

(When I was asked to write the article about Robert E. Howard that became “Robert E. Howard and the Later Weird Tales,” I did a bit more than I was asked to do and ended up rewriting the opening portion. Not one to waste any effort, I present those opening pages here. If you’ve already read the complete, 19-page piece in The Weird Tales Story: Expanded and Enhanced, you probably don’t need to go any further.)

In the summer of 1921, Robert E. Howard, the fifteen-year-old son of a country doctor, discovered the pulps—at least, that is when he started buying them:

I well remember the first I ever bought. I was fifteen years old; I bought it one summer night when a wild restlessness in me would not let me keep still, and I had exhausted all the reading material on the place. I’ll never forget the thrill it gave me. Somehow it never had occurred to me before that I could buy a magazine. It was an Adventure. I still have the copy. [Letter to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. July 1933]

That initial thrill ignited a spark in Howard. While he had already been writing little stories for his high school English classes—standard fare with titles like “A Twentieth Century Rip Van Winkle”—his discovery of Adventure in 1921 gave birth to a writer. He told H. P. Lovecraft, “at the age of fifteen, having never seen a writer, a poet, a publisher or a magazine editor, and having only the vaguest ideas of procedure, I began working on the profession I had chosen.” It would take a few years of practice and the birth of a new magazine, Weird Tales, before Howard had any success in that profession.

At first, inspired by the stories he read in the adventure pulps, Howard produced humorous western adventures. Before the end of 1921, he was already submitting stories to the magazines he’d been purchasing, starting with “Bill Smalley and the Power of the Human Eye,” which was submitted to, and rejected by, Adventure. This was Howard’s first series character, though his high school English teacher was probably the only one to know it. Howard produced at least two other tales starring Smalley and turned them in for credit: “Over the Rockies in a Ford” (dated November 15, 1921) and “The Ghost of Bald Rock Ranch” (December 13, 1921). During the next two years, Howard submitted at least five other stories, all rejected. Three of those titles he sent off to top tier pulps Adventure, Argosy All-Story, and Cosmopolitan; the other two went to a new magazine named Weird Tales.

Dated March 1923, “The Unique Magazine” appeared on newsstands in February, but based on ads in the local newspaper, probably not in Cross Plains, the small community in Central West Texas where Robert E. Howard attended high school. Luckily for Howard, in 1922 the Cross Plains school system only went as far as the 10th grade. To be college eligible, students had to pick up another year of schooling somewhere else; Robert E. Howard went to the high school in nearby Brownwood for that “senior” year. Brownwood was (and still is) a larger community than Cross Plains and its selection of magazines included Weird Tales.

Between submitting stories to the adventure pulps and writing humorous yarns for his school newspaper, The Tattler, Howard must have stumbled onto one of the early issues of the new magazine and decided to try his hand at a weird tale. In a circa February 1929 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard included a list of submissions he’d made from 1921 up to that point; this includes his first try at Weird Tales, “The Mystery of Summerton Castle,” which was rejected by editor Edwin Baird. Following his 1923 graduation, Howard returned to Cross Plains and began working at various odd jobs, he also continued to write. A July 7, 1923 letter to Smith, mentions his second attempt at the new magazine: “I sent a story to the Weird Tales, ‘The Phantom of Old Egypt’ which I suppose they will turn down.” He was not wrong. Both of these submissions are lost, though the 1929 list provides a bit of detail regarding the second tale: “Orient. Lit. & Legends—slight.”

In 1924, Howard finally saw his name in the pulps, though not as he probably wished. Two of his letters to Adventure were published, one in the March 20 issue and the other in the August 20 edition. Both letters contain questions Howard had on different cultures. The answers, no doubt, were to be used as details in stories he was writing for that same magazine. But Howard would receive even better story advice later that year when the December issue of Weird Tales hit the stands.

Howard had returned to Brownwood in the fall of 1924 to attend the Commercial School at Howard Payne College. Back in the larger town, he could have picked up the December issue on the day it came out, November 1. Discovered by Howard scholar Patrice Louinet (see his “The Wright Hook“), that issue’s Eyrie has a request from new editor Farnsworth Wright. Tired of rejecting “manuscripts dealing with fights between dinosaurs and pterodactyls on the one hand and cavemen on the other,” Wright specifically asks for the following:

Our learned friends among the anthropologists tell us that the legend of ogres dates from cavemen tribes. The Neandertalers were so terrible and primitive and brutish, they tell us, that the Cro-Magnon cavemen never interbred with them, but killed them without mercy. And when a Cro-Magnon child strayed alone from its cave, and a cannibalistic Neandertaler stalked it, that was the end of the child; but the memory of those brutish and half-human people remains in our legends of ogres; for the Cro-Magnons were not exterminated by the nomadic tribes that afterwards entered Europe and peopled it, but intermarried with them, and retained some of their legends.

How would you like a tale of the warfare between a Cro-Magnon (say one of the artists who painted the pictures of reindeer and mammoths which still amaze the tourist) and one of those brutish ogres, perhaps over a girl who has taken the fancy of the Neandertaler; and the Cro-Magnon artist follows the Neandertal man to his den, and… But we have no room to tell the story in “The Eyrie”. We wish one of our author friends would write it for us.

And, apparently, Robert E. Howard did just that. He must have read Wright’s request early in November and written his tale in just a few days as, according to his semi-autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, the story had been accepted by November 27, 1924. Wright’s suggestion perfectly describes Howard’s first professional sale, “Spear and Fang,” for which he would receive $15 (or $16, depending on the source) upon publication.

Emboldened by that initial sale, Howard sent in two more stories while in Brownwood: “The Lost Race” and “The Hyena.” Not wanting to stay in school, Howard returned to Cross Plains at the Christmas break. There, a letter awaited accepting “The Hyena,” but asking for a rewrite of “The Lost Race.” According to Post Oaks, Howard “doubted his ability to make the tale come up to standard, even with the editor’s remarks to guide him, and dreading a second refusal, delayed several days before he made the changes, and sent off two more stories with it when he returned it.”

The turnaround must have been quick as, by January 7, 1925, Howard was able to report to Smith, “I sold two more stories to Weird Tales, one for $25 (“The Hyena”) and the other for $30 (“The Lost Race”). However, they sent back what I consider my masterpiece thus far, with sarcastic remarks.” The identity of his “masterpiece” is not known, but the 1929 list contains several titles that are now lost, including “The Trail of the Single Foot,” “The Crimson Line,” and “Windigo! Windigo!” In Post Oaks, Howard describes “The Lost Race” as “a wild tale of early Britain,” and “The Hyena,” as “a story of East Africa and native superstition.”

Following this success, Howard deluged Weird Tales with stories, but “To his dismay five weird tales of his were rejected in a row. He could not understand. Something was wrong here. The editor sometimes pointed out faults which seemed minor to [Howard], but usually said briefly that it did not suit.” Some of these titles (from the 1929 list) may have been “Drums of Horror,” “The Street of Grey-beards,” and “The Last White Man.”

Following this string of rejections, Howard submitted “In the Forest of Villefere,” and “was jubilant when the editor accepted it—intensely flattered when that worthy remarked that in his opinion it was a ‘gem’” (Post Oaks). The 1929 list describes the story as “Superstition; Action, were-wolves, medieval France,” for which he would receive $8.00 on publication.

Finally, more than six months after it was accepted, Howard’s “Spear and Fang” hit the stands on June 1, 1925, in the July issue of Weird Tales. This was “a pinnacle” in Howard’s life: “He sat and stared at his name in print for hours at a time, thrilling to his finger ends” (Post Oaks). The very next month, “In the Forest of Villefere” appeared. The September issue has a letter of comment in “The Eyrie,” written by a cousin at Howard’s request, that boosts “Spear and Fang”; otherwise, there are no reader responses to Howard’s first two professional appearances. [. . .]

“It Gave Me the Jitters”

[by Rob Roehm; originally posted June 25, 2010, at the old Two-Gun Raconteur blog. This version updated with new screen caps.]

Thanks to Rusty Burke’s “REH Bookshelf,” acquiring the books and magazines that Robert E. Howard read has been one of my little obsessions for almost as long as I’ve been connected to the internet; seeing the movies that Howard saw is a newer compulsion. Thanks again to Rusty Burke (see his “REH Goes to the Movies” at the now-defunct REHupa website), it’s easy to find the titles that Howard mentioned. With television networks like Turner Classic Movies and services like Netflix, websites like Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and Greenbriar Picture Shows, it’s easier than ever to find information about the films Howard mentions; with a little diligence, it’s sometimes possible to find the film itself, out there in cyber space. Watching the movie, and then reading Howard’s comments about that movie, can be pretty interesting.

Take for example Back Street (Universal, 1932). In a circa September 1932 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard describes his reaction to the film:

Back Street was powerful, to my mind, and most damnably harrowing. I wept bitterly. That’s no lie. While weeping some yegg in front of me turned around and gave me an incredulous look, and thinking he was about to make a smart crack, I gave him a murderous glare, wiped away my tears and drew back my right to mash him for the insect he was, but he made no comment and turned around again. Maybe he was weeping too. I wish I hadn’t seen that show. It really tore me up. The thought of an intelligent and talented woman wasting all her years on a low-lifed son-of-a-bitch and sacrificing herself and living in the shadows, it gave me the jitters. I felt like taking a club and wading through the populace like Samson through the Philadelphians.

Wow, that must be one heck of a movie. “REH Goes to the Movies” has the following information:

A woman falls in love with a married man and consents to be his mistress, remaining faithful through the years. Based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. Director: John M. Stahl. Cast: Irene Dunn (Ray Schmidt); John Boles (Walter Saxel); June Clyde (Freda Schmidt); George Meeker (Kurt Shendler); Zasu Pitts (Mrs. Dole); Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Saxel); etc. Black & white. Sound.

IMDB provides a bit more, like who the writers were, the release date, and the following tagline:

Waiting—always waiting—in the shadows of the back streets . . . longing for the man she loves . . . asking nothing, receiving nothing—yet content to sacrifice all for him. Why?

Why, indeed, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The above is all well and good, of course, but nothing beats the actual movie. Thank goodness for You Tube. Head on over there and do a search for “‘Back Street’ 1932” and you should find it—or try the link here.

SPOILER ALERT

So, we’ve got your typical 1920’s flapper, Ray Schmidt (played by Dunne), who all the boys want to date. She is high-spirited and easily outmaneuvers her ardent companions. She meets Walter Saxel (played by John Boles), and the two hit it off. A whirlwind romance ensues and the two fall in love, despite the fact that Saxel is supposed to be marrying another girl. He just knows that if his mother were to meet Ray, she’d concede to letting him marry her, instead. Of course, through no fault of her own Ray misses the meeting with mom and Walter marries the original girl. Then things get weird.

Several years later, Ray and Walter bump into each other and get caught up. The old feelings emerge and the two begin an illicit affair; Walter even sets Ray up in a cozy apartment, all expenses paid. But when he has to leave town on business, Ray discovers just how lonely her life is: she can’t be seen in public, she can’t make dinner plans, etc.

While Walter is away, an old rival for Ray’s affections sees her in the city and the two hit it off. Ray realizes that she can’t have a normal life with Walter and so concedes to marrying her new suitor, but Walter tracks her down and wins her back, saying only that he loves her.

We then jump forward in time. Walter has had a couple of children with his wife, has, in fact, become a very successful guy. He boards a steamship with his family and the onlookers wait for the mysterious other woman who follows Walter everywhere to make her appearance. Ray, of course. It seems that everyone knows about her except for Walter’s wife. Even his children know, and they’re not happy about it.

Walter’s college-age son confronts Ray and tells her to leave the family alone. Walter reveals the depth of his feelings for Ray to his son (above), then suffers a stroke, or something, and dies. The son, realizing it is what his father would have wanted, offers to keep Ray set up in the manner she is accustomed. But she dies too, I guess, of a broken heart. The end—roll credits.

Now, I suppose that I had trouble getting into that 1920s frame of mind. The idea of a woman being content to wait around for the few moments her married boyfriend can give her every once in a while must seem farcical to modern audiences. And Ray’s dramatic shift from the life of the party to a depressed shut-in is pretty unbelievable to me. In fact, while she’s with Walter, she seems miserable. Are we supposed to believe that it was all worth it for her because they loved each other? Or are we supposed to see how pathetic, empty and lonely a mistress’ life is? What?

And while I didn’t weep, I’ll agree with Howard that the “thought of an intelligent and talented woman wasting all her years on a low-lifed son-of-a-bitch and sacrificing herself and living in the shadows” gave me “the jitters.”