Monday, July 01, 2019

Robert E. Howard: Weird Tales Illustrations



"I was born in Peaster, Texas, a small town not far from Weatherford, in January, 1906, at an early age.  I was named Robert Ervin Howard after my great-grandfather, Robert Ervin.  I was also named after George Washington, but not for him."  Thus wrote Robert E. Howard on November 29, 1921, while at Cross Plains High School.  This facetiousness was typical of his reluctance to provide autobiographical material without giving an entire history of his forebears.

Howard didn't start school until age eight, and he no doubt entered the system reluctantly:  "I hated school as I hate the memory of school.  It wasn't the work I minded...what I hated was the confinement -- the clock-like regularity of everything; the regulation of my speech and actions; most of all the idea that someone considered him or herself in authority over me, with the right to question my actions or interfere with my thoughts."  Howard "generally did just enough work to keep from flunking the courses..."

Though school was anathema to him, he admitted to having been at the head of the class in history.  "You will find me well versed in history.  Even in my earliest childhood, I read more history than anything else, partly because I lived in the country and textbooks came more easily to my hand, and partly because of a natural inclination that way."

Bob, c. 1914

Howard was an insatiable reader.  "As a boy and a youth in my teens, I read purely for the love of reading."  Nor was the boy particular about what he read: "Books were scarce in the country.  I could not go into a library or bookstore and select what I wanted.  I had to read whatever came to my hand..."  Whenever he'd exhausted the local supply of reading material, Howard resorted to burglary during the summer surcease of school.  "With a flour sack tied to my saddlehorn, I raided isolated schoolhouses up the creeks, in the hills, and in villages.  I jimmied the doors or windows of the buildings, and pried the locks off the solidly made bookcases; if that failed, I removed the hinges."  He was quick to add, "I did not steal those books.  I always returned them in as good shape as I took them."

When he had nothing to read, Howard turned to writing.  "I remember the first story I ever wrote -- at the age of about nine or ten -- dealt with the adventures of one Boealf, a young Dane Viking."  His memory may have been faulty on the matter, for elsewhere he wrote, "The first character I ever created was Francis Xavier Gordon, El Borak, the hero of 'The Daughters of Erlik Khan', etc.  I don't remember his genesis.  He came to life in my mind when I was about ten years old."

"Magazines were even more scarce than books," Howard recalled.  "It was after I moved into 'town' (comparatively speaking) that I began to buy magazines.  I well remember the first I ever bought.  I was fifteen years old..."  It was an issue of Adventure.  "I'll never forget the thrill it gave me."

Teenaged pirates: Bob (right) with his neighbours, 1924

If books made Howard want to read, pulp magazines made him want to write -- at least, professionally.  "[A]t 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 at the profession I had chosen."  His first attempt at breaking into the field was sent to Adventure -- and was rejected.  Years later Howard mused, "I never have been able to sell to Adventure; guess my first attempt cooked me with them forever!"

The high school at Cross Plains, where Howard and his parents settled in 1919 after moving from one small town to the next, only went to Grade 10, and in 1922 Howard went to Brownwood, some 40 miles away, to complete his education, staying in a boarding house.  He returned to Brownwood in 1924 to take a stenography course at Howard Payne College, and while there made his first sale, "Spear and Fang", to Farnsworth Wright, Weird Tales' new editor, for $16.  "I was eighteen when I wrote 'Spear and Fang', 'The Lost Race', and 'The Hyena'; nineteen when I wrote 'In the Forest of Villefere' and 'Wolfshead'.  And after that it was another two years before I sold another line of fiction.  I don't like to think about those two years."

WEIRD TALES (April 1926); cover by E. M. Stevenson; "She struck with her dagger, and her assailant hurled her to the floor, tearing, tearing at her."

WEIRD TALES (April 1926); illustration by E. M. Stevenson

Small wonder.  College was no more tolerable than grade school or high school.  "...I'm prejudiced against all colleges -- to Hell with them."  Worse, Howard had to support himself through a succession of menial jobs, and his resentment of authority -- and aversion to conformity -- didn't help.  "I was so depressed and discouraged that I went and got a job jerking soda in a drugstore.  The manager was no Santa Claus but we got along alright after I offered to tie my right hand behind me and beat his head off with my left."

Not surprisingly, he couldn't hold a job.  Sometimes work was slow or paid little, but usually Howard couldn't get along with his employer.  "I've worked at several jobs, but wasn't a success at any of them; I've picked cotton, helped brand a few yearlings, hauled a little garbage, worked in a grocery store, ditto a dry-goods store, worked in a law office, jerked soda, worked up in a gas office, tried to be a public stenographer, packed a surveyor's rod, worked up oil field news for some Texas and Oklahoma papers, etc., etc., and also etc."

WEIRD TALES (January 1927); illustration by G. O. Olinick

Howard's writing netted him only $50 in 1926.  Something had to be done.  In the summer of 1927 he sold a number of stories to Farnsworth Wright.  That year he earned even less, $37.50.  But he resolved to make a living at it.  In 1931 he wrote, "I've always had a honing to make my living by writing, ever since I can remember, and while I haven't been a howling success in that line, at least I've managed for several years now to get by without grinding at some time clock-punching job.  There's freedom in this game; that's the main reason I chose it."  He summed up his personal philosophy in one sentence: "Life's not worth living if someone thinks he's in authority over you."

When Howard first learned that his Solomon Kane story, "Red Shadows", was to make the cover for the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales, it must have felt a great triumph; but then Wright sent him a desperate letter, asking for a carbon copy of the story, as the artist, E. M. Stevenson, had delivered the artwork but failed to return the manuscript, and the cover had already been printed.  Unfortunately, Howard had no copy.  In a flurry, he rewrote the story from memory, and the relieved editor paid Howard an extra $10 for his trouble.

WEIRD TALES (March 1928); illustration by Hugh Rankin

Howard's tales and poems began appearing more or less regularly in Weird Tales by 1928, and he quickly established himself as a favourite among readers.  He augmented that income writing for other magazines, most notably Fight Stories, Oriental Stories, and Action, in a number of genres.

Howard's characters were piling up.  Solomon Kane, Puritan swordsman, righter of wrongs, tall and grim -- almost spectral in appearance -- enjoyed some success after debuting in "Red Shadows" in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales, but subsequent efforts, King Kull and Bran Mak Morn, didn't fare so well.  Wright only bought two of Howard's Kull stories, and three of Bran Mak Morn, although one of them, "The Dark Man", is only peripherally related to the series.

WEIRD TALES (August 1928); cover by C. C. Senf

WEIRD TALES (August 1928); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Solomon Kane story

WEIRD TALES (September 1928); illustration by Hugh Rankin; rarely was a Howard poem illustrated

WEIRD TALES (January 1929); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Solomon Kane story

WEIRD TALES (June 1929); illustration by Hugh Rankin (as "Doak"); a Solomon Kane story

WEIRD TALES (August 1929); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Kull story

WEIRD TALES (September 1929); illustration by Hugh Rankin (as "Doak"); a Kull story

WEIRD TALES (October 1929); illustration by Hugh Rankin

WEIRD TALES (November 1929); illustration by Hugh Rankin (as "Doak")

WEIRD TALES (December 1929); illustration by Hugh Rankin (as "Doak")

WEIRD TALES (June 1930); cover by Hugh Rankin

WEIRD TALES (June 1930); illustration by Hugh Rankin (as "Doak"); a Solomon Kane story

WEIRD TALES (July 1930); illustration by Hugh Rankin (as "Doak"); a Solomon Kane story

WEIRD TALES (August 1930); Illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Solomon Kane story

WEIRD TALES (November 1930); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Bran Mak Morn story

WEIRD TALES (April-May 1931); illustration by C. C. Senf

WEIRD TALES (September 1931); illustration by C. C. Senf

WEIRD TALES (October 1931); illustration by Joseph Doolin

WEIRD TALES (November 1931); illustration by Joseph Doolin

WEIRD TALES (December 1931); illustration by C. C. Senf

WEIRD TALES (February 1932); illustration by Joseph Doolin

WEIRD TALES (May 1932); illustration by T. Wyatt Nelson

WEIRD TALES (July 1932); illustration by T. Wyatt Nelson; a Solomon Kane story

WEIRD TALES (November 1932); illustration by T. Wyatt Nelson; a Bran Mak Morn story

If Howard wasn't eager to get a regular job, it wasn't for lack of a work ethic.  "I have worked as much as eighteen hours a day at my typewriter, but it was work of my own choosing, and I could quit any time I wanted to without getting fired from the job."  But his writing habits weren't consistent.  "I'm provokingly indolent in writing.  I work in bursts and spurts.  I may turn out a month's output in a few days, and then loaf for weeks.  I have written 12,000 words in a day, but I couldn't keep up such a pace, not by any manner or means, or even 10,000 words, for any length of time.  I sell so little, though, that I have to produce a great deal in order to make a living at all."

He had no complaints about incessantly pounding the keys of his Underwood typewriter; and rejections were one of life's little disappointments.  "[A]fter all, even the bitterness of existence has its compensations, slight though they may be.  To be brought up in the lap of luxury, to live a life of idle pleasure -- never to know the bite of cold, the sting of heat, the pangs of hunger, and the agony of unceasing toil, the black bitterness of failure, the sordities of poverty, the blood, the grime, and the sweat -- to live such a life is to miss the full grip of human realities."

WEIRD TALES (December 1932); illustration by Jayem Wilcox; the first Conan story

HITHER CAME CONAN

Late in 1932 Weird Tales introduced, Conan, who would prove to be Howard's most successful creation.  "Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande.  I did not create him by any conscious process.  He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures..."  He was enthusiastic about his latest creation.  "Episode crowded upon episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them.  For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan."

"[H]is supernatural adventures aside -- he is the most realistic character I ever evolved.  He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known...prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen..."

Howard himself was a large man: six feet tall, barrel-chested, averaging 200 lbs.  (His weight went up and down frequently, depending on the amount of groceries the family's budget would allow.)  He lifted weights, played with guns and swords, rode horses, boxed and wrestled with his friends; but only in his imagination was he akin to his many heroic characters.

Nor was he well-travelled, like Conan, who wandered over much of the known world and spoke at least a dozen languages.  Howard rarely left Texas, or strayed far from home, for that matter.  Isolated geographically, he met only one other Weird Tales author, E. Hoffmann Price, with whom he'd corresponded.  In 1934, headed for California, Price drove hundreds of miles out of his way to meet Howard.

Robert E. Howard (left); he had a collection of swords, some of them antiques

Fortunately, Howard had two friends somewhat nearer in location, Tevis Clyde Smith and Truett Vinson, from his Brownwood High days.  Smith's high school sweetheart, Novelyn Price, became Howard's girlfriend in 1934, but their difficult relationship lasted less than two years.  Towards the end she started seeing Truett Vinson.  Howard tried to maintain a friendship with Miss Price, but even that dwindled into oblivion.

What must have seemed like a betrayal on Vinson's part seems all the more cruel considering this painful passage from a 1928 letter to Harold Preece: "I notice this much -- Truett or Clyde, together or alone, quite often are taken up by girls, but that the dames usually pass me up, even if they know me -- and pass us all up when I am with the crowd.  I suppose that there is something forbidding about my appearance, which is usually unshaven and careless and God knows I was never accused of beauty."

WEIRD TALES (January 1933); illustration by Jayem Wilcox; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (March 1933); illustration by Jayem Wilcox; a Conan story

Howard sent two Conan stories to Wright, "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Frost-Giant's Daughter".  In contrast, the events in the two stories occur when Conan is middleaged and teenaged, respectively.  This capriciousness of chronology would become typical of the series.  According to Howard, "In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me.  That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order.  The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him."

"The Frost-Giant's Daughter", a rather poetic effort, was rejected.  "The Phoenix on the Sword", a rewrite of an unpublished Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule", was used in the December 1932 issue.  Readers kept demanding more.  Nine Conan stories made the cover, beginning with "Black Colossus" (June 1933), though the Cimmerian appears on only three of them; all were painted in pastels by Margaret Brundage.

WEIRD TALES (June 1933); cover by Margaret Brundage; first cover for a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (June 1933); illustration by Jayem Wilcox; a Conan story

In The Eyrie, Weird Tales' letters column, Howard expressed some admiration for Brundage's charming covers: "Enthusiasm impels me to pause from burning spines of cactus for my drouth-bedevilled goats long enough to give three slightly dust-choked cheers for the April cover illustration.  The colour combination is vivid and attractive, the lady is luscious, and altogether I think it's the best thing Mrs Brundage has done since she illustrated my Black Colossus.  And that's no depreciation of the covers done between these master-pictures."

WEIRD TALES (September 1933); cover by Margaret Brundage

WEIRD TALES (September 1933); illustration by Jayem Wilcox; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (October 1933); illustration by Jayem Wilcox; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (January 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (February 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin

WEIRD TALES (April 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (May 1934); cover by Margaret Brundage

WEIRD TALES (May 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story; a note near the beginning of the story explains that Brundage was asked to illustrate this climactic scene for the cover, and Rankin a different scene, but he'd already sent this one in

WEIRD TALES (June 1934); illustration by H. R. Hammond

WEIRD TALES (August 1934); cover by Margaret Brundage

WEIRD TALES (August 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (September 1934); cover by Margaret Brundage

WEIRD TALES (September 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (October 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (November 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (December 1934); cover by Margaret Brundage

WEIRD TALES (December 1934); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

In the same letter the Eyrie, Howard lauded the talents of another artist: "I must also express my appreciation to Mr. Napoli, who has done a splendid job of illustrating my serial."  In a personal letter, Howard offered a minor complaint of Napoli: "...at times he seems to give him a sort of Latin cast of the countenance which isn't according to type, as I conceive it."  The serial alluded to was the unusually lengthy "Hour of the Dragon", which appeared over the course of five issues, and which had been written much earlier.

"As you doubtless remember," wrote Howard to British publisher, Dennis Archer, "in your letter of Jan. 9th., 1934, you suggested that I submit a full length novel, on the order of the weird short stories submitted, to your allied company of Pauling & Ness, Ltd.  Under separate cover, I am sending you a 75,000 word novel, entitled 'The Hour of the Dragon', written according to your suggestions."

Howard had completed the story by May of 1934 by rehashing many of the elements found in previous Conan tales.  Unfortunately, the publisher went bankrupt, putting the kibosh on Howard's novel.

WEIRD TALES (February 1935); illustration by Vincent Napoli

WEIRD TALES (March 1935); illustration by Joseph Doolin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (May 1935); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (June 1935); illustration by Hugh Rankin; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (November 1935); cover by Margaret Brundage

WEIRD TALES (November 1935); illustration by Vincent Napoli; a Conan story

One of Howard's favourite illustrators was Hugh Rankin, who occasionally signed his name "Doak".  "I am a sort of a fiend about Rankin's illustrations", Howard wrote in 1934; he considered Joseph Patrick Doolin "equally good."

Polite remarks aside, one has to wonder if Howard was ever fully satisfied with the way Conan was rendered by the Weird Tales illustrators, Jayem Wilcox, Hugh Rankin, Joseph Doolin, Vincent Napoli, and Harold S. De Lay.  The drawings, intended as ephemera, ranged from serviceable to spectacular; yet no one seemed to adequately capture the wild barbarian described by Howard.

"The Cimmerians are tall and powerful, with black hair and blue or grey eyes," Howard mentioned in "The Hyborian Age".  Fully grown, Conan was "almost a giant in stature".  Still in his teens in "The Tower of the Elephant", the Cimmerian is already an impressive figure: "His cheap tunic could not conceal the hard, rangy lines of his powerful frame, the broad heavy shoulders, the massive chest, lean waist, and heavy arms.  His skin was brown from outland suns, his eyes blue and smoldering..."  The Cimmerian battled other gigantic men, but rarely met anyone taller than he.

WEIRD TALES (December 1935); cover by Margaret Brundage

WEIRD TALES (December 1935); illustration by Vincent Napoli; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (January 1936); illustration by Vincent Napoli; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (February 1936); illustration by Vincent Napoli; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (March 1936); illustration by Vincent Napoli; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (April 1936); illustration by Vincent Napoli; a Conan story

Conan's strength is described as "unusual" and "beyond common conception", with speed and agility to match.  In "The Pool of the Black One", Conan, after having swum a great distance, boards the Wastrel.  The captain reluctantly allows the exiled Barachan pirate to join his band of Zingaran "freebooters"; but first comes the rite of passage, and the crew choose the toughest fighter amongst them to make sure the barbarian knows his place on the ship.  After insulting Conan and spitting in his face, the man reaches for his sword:

"The Barachan's movement was too quick for the eye to follow.  His sledge-like fist crunched with a terrible impact against his tormentor's jaw, and the Zingaran catapulted through the air and fell in a crumpled heap by the rail.

"Conan turned toward the others.  But for a slumbering glitter in his eyes, his bearing was unchanged.  But the baiting was over as suddenly as it had begun.  The seamen lifted their companion; his broken jaw hung slack, his head lolled unnaturally.

"'By Mitra, his neck's broken!' swore a black-bearded sea-rogue.

"'You Freebooters are a weak-boned race,' laughed the pirate.  'On the Barachas we take no account of such taps as that.'"

Conan's shipmates consider him "by far the strongest man any of them had seen."

WEIRD TALES (June 1936); illustration by Harold S. De Lay

There was also the matter of Conan's wildness.  In the climax to "Shadows in the Moonlight", Conan and Olivia (whom he'd rescued from a cruel master) are confronted by some sort of gigantic gorilla: "The moonlight scene swam, to Olivia's sight.  This, then, was the end of the trail -- for what human could withstand the fury of that mountain of thews and ferocity?  Yet, as she stared in wide-eyed horror at the bronzed figure facing the monster, she sensed a kinship in the antagonists that was almost appalling.  This was less a struggle between man and beast than a conflict between two creatures of the wild, equally merciless and ferocious."  Rankin's exceptional illustration for this scene is effective in its movement and spontaneous intensity, as if he had quickly and desperately sketched it from life.  (Certainly not a tableau one would voluntarily want to bear witness to for any length of time.)

Brundage's Conan is comparatively soft and civilised, but she had been influenced by fashion magazines, rather than the powerful paintings of artists like Howard Pyle (1853-1911), whose grim, menacing pirates appeared in popular periodicals.

"One of the main things I like about Farnsworth Wright's magazines," Howard wrote in 1931, "is you don't have to make your heroes such utter saints."  Indeed, some of Conan's behaviour is questionable.  In "Beyond the Black River", Balthus mentions the storming of the fort at Venarium, whose people were attempting to push their border northward into Cimmerian territory.  "Men, women and children were butchered."  Balthus calls the slaughter, which had taken place a quarter of a century earlier, "a black blot in the chronicles of a proud and warlike people."  Conan admits to having been "one of the horde that swarmed over the walls.  I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows..."  (Howard was mistaken when he told P. Schuyler Miller in a letter that Conan was fifteen at Venarium.)  But in adulthood he has a code of honour which he adheres to, including an aversion to killing women; and while gallant may be too strong a word for the Cimmerian, he'll coddle and protect to the death a female companion.

Bob guzzling beer; on the back of a copy to E. Hoffman Price, Howard wrote, "Schlitz didn't pay me a penny for this endorsement -- and probably won't."

On May 6, 1935 it was Howard's turn to write a desperate plea to Farnsworth Wright.  Much of the family income went to the care of Howard's mother, who had been ill for many years, and the writer began to worry when an expected cheque from Wright did not arrive.  In his lengthy missive, Howard went into great detail about the family's plight and necessary expenses.

"Costs of living have gone up; this part of the country has suffered bitterly through drouth and dust-storms.  My father is an old man and most of his patients are poverty-stricken hill people who seldom have anything but farm produce to pay him.  This year they may not even have that.  Poverty is no new tale to me.  I've gnawed crusts all my life.  But the hardships I've suffered in the past may be picnics to what confronts me if Weird Tales discontinues my monthly cheques."

Wright owed Howard over $800 for stories already published or bought, "enough to pay all my debts and get me back on my feet again if I could receive it all at once.  Perhaps this is impossible.  I have no wish to be unreasonable; I know times are hard for everybody.  But I don't believe I am being unreasonable in asking you to pay me a cheque each month until the accounts are squared."

Howard increased his output by writing more adventure stories and earned an estimated $2000 in 1935, more than any previous year, but that fact was of little comfort.

WEIRD TALES (July 1936); cover by Margaret Brundage

WEIRD TALES (July 1936); "The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!"; illustration by Harold S. De Lay, unconsciously swiping John Tenniel; a Conan story

WEIRD TALES (September 1936); illustration by Harold S. De Lay

WEIRD TALES (October 1936); illustration by Harold S. De Lay

In July 1935 Howard sent Wright a 3-part tale, "Red Nails".  "A Conan yarn, and the grimmest, bloodiest, and most merciless story of the series so far.  Too much raw meat, maybe, but I merely portrayed what I honestly believe would be the reactions of certain types of people in the situations on which the plot of the story hung."

"Red Nails" was the last Conan story Howard wrote -- in fact, it was the last story he wrote for Weird Tales.  He began devoting more time to westerns.  "I would hate to abandon weird writing entirely...", he ruefully wrote, but the market was slow in paying.  The end was near.

Howard committed suicide on June 11, 1936, at the age of thirty.  A newspaper report read (in part):

"Until Thursday of last week, the young Cross Plains author had maintained an almost constant vigil at his mother's bed side.  When her death became imminent he asked a nurse if she thought his mother would ever recognise him again.

"Sympathetically, the nurse responded: 'I'm afraid not.'

"Stoically he rose from beside the sick-bed and walked to his automobile which was parked to the side-rear of the Howard home.  He got inside, closed the doors and fired a pistol bullet through his brain.  Neighbours said the tragedy happened a few minutes after eight o'clock.  He lived until four that afternoon.

"Mrs Howard never regained consciousness and was not aware of her son's death.  She expired about 30 hours later, shortly after 10 o'clock Friday night."

Howard's father continued for another eight years.  Fellow Weird Tales author Otis Adelbert Kline, whom Howard hired in 1933 as literary agent (though he continued to sell to Wright directly), represented the Howard estate after his death, and placed a few more unpublished stories and poems in that magazine.  Weird Tales folded in 1954.

WEIRD TALES (November 1936); illustration by Harold S. De Lay

WEIRD TALES (December 1936); cover by J. Allen St. John

WEIRD TALES (December 1936); illustration by J. Allen St. John

WEIRD TALES (February 1937); illustration by Virgil Finlay

WEIRD TALES (May 1938); illustration by Virgil Finlay

WEIRD TALES (September 1938); illustration by Virgil Finlay; story co-written by Frank Thurston Torbett

WEIRD TALES (May 1939); illustration by Virgil Finlay; "Almuric"

WEIRD TALES (May 1939); 2nd illustration by Virgil Finlay

WEIRD TALES (July 1939); illustration by Virgil Finlay

WEIRD TALES (August 1939); illustration by Virgil Finlay