[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. [. . .]