An Irreparable Loss: Robert E. Howard and Weird Tales, 1936 Essay
In 1936, regular readers of Weird Tales must have thought Robert E. Howard was having a good year. In the first seven months, Howard had serials or stories in six issues, of which two were voted the best story in their issues, and in July he had the cover, illustrated by Margaret Brundage. Even in May, when Howard didn’t have any stories in the issue, the Eyrie was filled with praise and criticism for the conclusion to Howard’s long serial-novel, The Hour of the Dragon. The announcement of his suicide the next month came as a shock, as shown by the outpouring of memorials and remembrances from his fellow pulpsters and fans. Yet behind the scenes, all was not well between Robert E. Howard and Weird Tales.
Never a large operation, the Great Depression had taken its toll on the Unique Magazine. The bank that Weird Tales used reportedly closed and never reopened. (WTS 85) Various ventures failed to turn a profit: The Moon Terror (1927), an anthology, didn’t sell through until the 1940s; an effort at radio dramatizations ceased in 1930; a new weird pulp, Strange Stories, never materialized; Oriental Stories (later The Magic Carpet Magazine) did, but the oriental tales ended in 1934, taking with them another market for Robert E.
Howard, and “Wright’s Shakespeare Library” (illustrated by Virgil Finlay) of 1935 likewise didn’t pan out. Writers were offered 1? per word—double the standard pulp rate—to be paid on publication; as was common at the time, the publisher usually retained all copyrights on the story, unless the writer specified “North American serial rights” only. However, by 1935 the magazine was badly behind on its payments to certain authors, most notably Robert E. Howard, and had been for some time.
The Howards too were hard-hit by the Depression. As a country doctor where cash was scarce, Dr. I. M. Howard was often forced to accept barter for his services. (CL2.450, 3.307) In 1932, Fiction House, publisher of Fight Stories and Action Stories suspended publication—this ultimately caused Robert E. Howard to acquire an agent, Otis Adelbert Kline, who broke Howard into new markets for a commission, though Howard kept Weird Tales as a market he had built up himself. (CL3.404) Some of these ventures, like the adventures of Breckinridge Elkins in Action Stories, proved a success. Others, like the Conan the Cimmerian novel The Hour of the Dragon, written for British publisher Denis Archer, didn’t pan out, and Howard eventually sold the 70,000-word novel to Weird Tales in December 1934 or January 1935, to be serialized in 1936. (CL3.255, 302)
Between January and May of 1935, matters came to a head. Weird Tales owed Howard $860 for stories published; unable or unwilling to pay the whole amount on publication, the company had settled on sending “half-checks” every month—these would, from notes on payments received that Dr. Howard kept in a ledger, appear to be half-payments for stories (i.e. if a story sold for $150, a half-check would be $75) (CLIMH358-373, CL3.306). The Howards depended on the steady income for medical expenses. Hester Jane Howard, long suffering from tuberculosis and associated illness, required surgery to remove her gall-bladder and reduce adhesions from an appendicitis operation, and the wound later developed an abscess; being far from major cities and hospitals, these operations required lengthy trips and stays away from Cross Plains. (CL3.306, 309) At a time when the Howards needed it most, Weird Tales missed a payment.
In May of 1935, Robert E. Howard sent a letter to Farnsworth Wright begging for money. (CL3.306-308) There was no reply, and in desperation Howard sent a letter to his agent, asking “Is Weird Tales still a legitimate publication, or has it become a racket?” (CL3.309)
It was a fair question; other pulps had treated their writers as badly or worse, with Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories having a particularly poor reputation in the circle of Weird Tales correspondents, and Howard was far from the only writer for Weird Tales in a similar predicament. E. Hoffman Price noted of his own situation:
It is only fair that the most W.T. owed me at any time was never in excess of $300. This peak was achieved only because of a two-parter, and a short. They were not favoring me. When their indebtedness reached a certain point, they got no more scripts from me. My production went to cash customers. Belatedly, Howard, on his own initiative, adopted the same approach. (BOTD 72)
Other writers also noted that backlog of payments got so bad that some payments were made more than a year after publication. (CLIMH 178)
At the time, the staff at Weird Tales consisted of William Sprenger, the business manager; B. Cornelius, the printer, majority shareholder, and treasurer; and Farnsworth Wright, the editor who did everything else, from art layout to writing ad copy. Of the three, Howard had direct dealings with both Wright and Sprenger (though none of the latter’s letters survive), and it is likely that Sprenger made the ultimate decision as to whom would be paid and how much; certainly he signed some of the checks. (CLIMH 79) After Robert E. Howard’s death, Wright responded to Dr. Howard’s criticism of their business:
I must correct the impression that I or anyone else connected with Weird Tales “put in our pockets” the money that was due your son during the period when Weird Tales was in the throes of the depression. Fact is, I often did not know from one month to the other whether I would receive any money at all from the magazine; and I often received nothing (a serious condition, with my wife and son Robert to take care of); and it has been years since I received more than a fraction of the salary I used to get. […] Your son understood this state of affairs with the magazine, for both Mr. Sprenger and I explained it to him in our letters. (CLIMH 103-104)
The rumors that Wright went without a salary added something to the myth of Weird Tales in later decades, though E. Hoffmann Price, who visited Wright and the WT office in Chicago, poo-pooed the idea, and later even claimed:
A good many years after this dialog, I learned from an employee of the bank which had handled W.T. funds from the beginning and on until another outfit bought the magazine, that the publisher had money by the ream. The outfit had always pleaded poverty, and had found the “Great Depression” a handy device to exploit writers who could not, or fancied that they could not write salable yarns for any other than W. T. (BOTD 72)
This was probably a mistaken impression on the part of Price, as Wright was at pains to explain to Dr. Howard:
But there has always been sufficient balance at the news company (which holds back payment always for three full issues, a sum that we cannot tap) to pay off the authors in full in case the magazine went under; though the fund would not be available for that purpose until all the copies outstanding with the magazine-dealers had been called in. (CLIMH 104)
Still, the overdue and partial payments by Weird Tales, the long silence in response to Howard’s plea for funds, and the growing amount of monies owed—as Howard’s stories continued to see print in WT during 1935—all contributed to the agitation with Weird Tales in the Howard household. When E. Hoffmann Price and his wife visited Robert E. Howard for the second time in October 1935, the elder Howard braced him: “They are robbing my son—What do you think of those sons of bitches?” “Doctor, they rob us all, so I am getting into other lines, and so is Robert—” (CLIMH 331)
Two-Gun Bob was getting into other lines. In November 1935 he splashed three new markets: Western Aces, Thrilling Mystery, and Spicy Adventure, but he still wasn’t making sales as regularly as he wished (CL3.373, 392). While his work would slow and stutter to a stop during the worst of his mother’s illnesses, as Dr. Howard observed: “as his mother would react and show promise of even partial recovery, he would become normal again and spring into his work with renewed energy.” (CLIMH 59) Such bursts of creativity gave birth to Breckinridge Elkins, Pike Bearfield, and the revival of El Borak. Yet Mrs. Howard’s health continued to decline, and the medical bills kept piling up.
About the middle of November my mother’s health became so poor we took her to the Torbett Sanatorium in Marlin, Texas, where more than a gallon of fluid was drawn off her pleura. She stayed at Marlin two weeks. (CL3.388)
Robert E. Howard stayed in Marlin as well, and wrote several stories as his mother healed, experimenting with unfamiliar styles – just as the first part of The Hour of the Dragon debuted in the December 1935 issue, earning a cover painting by Margaret Brundage. Though they never met, Brundage recalled:
Howard was my favorite author […] I always liked his stories the best. […] Quinn’s work was alright but I liked Howard’s much better. Quinn was smart though. He realized immediately that Wright was having me do a nude for every cover. So, he made sure that each de Grandin story had at least one sequence where the heroine shed all her clothes. Wright invariably picked the Quinn stories to be the cover story. […] I had just about no contact with any of the authors of the stories that I illustrated. […] I never heard from any other authors other than an occasional letter from one that Wright showed me. (WTS 68)
Howard seemed almost to have given up on Weird Tales, describing “Red Nails” as “well may be the last fantasy I’ll ever write.” (CL3.389, 392-3) Then, at around the turn of the year:
A belated acknowledgment of the check for $99.00 from Weird Tales. A pleasant surprize, as I had not expected a check for “The Grisly Horror” at this time. (CL3.400)
The January 1936 issue of Weird Tales featured the second installment of The Hour of the Dragon. The first installment in the previous number was voted the most popular story in the issue, prolific fan-letter writer Gertrude Hemken of Chicago came out in praise of Conan in the Eyrie, and though behind in payments nearly a year (“The Grisly Horror” had been published in February 1935), WT was again cutting checks for Robert E. Howard. During the first weeks of January as his mother recovered, Two-Gun Bob reportedly managed 35,000 words of material (including a rewrite of “Sailor Dorgan and the Jade Monkey,” which had been accepted by Farnsworth Wright for The Magic Carpet Magazine but returned when the magazine folded), and between sales and the check from WT was managing his finances. (CL3.421, cf. BOTD 82, CLIMH 32-33) However, his mother’s condition soon took a turn for the worse:
I’ve had little opportunity to do any writing of any kind for the past month. In fact this letter is the longest bit of writing I’ve done since about the 20th of January. After our return from Marlin we stayed at home for about two weeks, and then my mother’s pleura filled again, and we took her to a hospital in San Angelo, 105 miles southwest of Cross Plains. After a few days then we put her in a sanatorium about seventeen miles northwest of San Angelo, where she stayed for six weeks, when her condition got so bad we put her back in the hospital at San Angelo. She remained there twelve days, and then we brought her home, since it seemed they had done all they could for her. (CL3.415)
Perhaps following the advice of E. Hoffmann Price and encouraged by Kline (who was, after all, earning a commission on sales to magazines other than Weird Tales), Howard focused on other markets, and there is no record that he submitted another story to Weird Tales after “Red Nails” for the rest of 1935. (CL3.367, 392-3)
For myself, I haven’t submitted anything to Weird Tales for many months, though I would, if payments could be made a little more promptly. I reckon the boys have their troubles, same as me, but my needs are urgent and immediate. (CL3.421)
Novalyne Price, Howard’s on-again love interest, approved of the transition:
I want to see you make something of that talent. I don’t want your work to be interfered with. I’m glad you’ve stopped writing for Weird Tales. They didn’t pay you anyway, and you’re better than that. Much better than that. (OWWA 267)
Despite these protests, Howard doesn’t seem to have been entirely done with fantasy. The first part of his essay “The Hyborian Age” appeared in The Phantagraph in February 1936, and the same month saw the publication of the third installment of The Hour of the Dragon, with praise for Howard and the serial was effusive in the Eyrie, with letters from Alvin V. Pershing, Henry Kuttner, B. M. Reynolds, Gertrude Hemken again, and Julius Watkins, who criticized Brundage’s cover painting for the December 1935 issue:
From Howard’s stories I have always pictured Conan as a rough, muscular scarred figure of giant stature with thick, wiry black hair covering his massive chest, powerful arms, and muscular legs, and a face that’s as rugged as the weather-beaten face of an old sea captain…. The first part of Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon is very exciting and I anxiously await the remaining installments. (WGP 81)
Watkins wasn’t the only critic of the art that accompanied the serial; James Vincent Napoli handled the interior artwork, and prompted Howard to remark: “Yes, Napoli’s done very well with Conan, though 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. However, that isn’t enough to kick about.” (CL3.430)
Two-Gun Bob, meanwhile, had taken his mother back to the hospital in Marlin, and did not return to Cross Plains until March. (CL3.425, 426) Weird Tales published the penultimate installment of The Hour of the Dragon, with fan-letters in the Eyrie from Michael Liene and Charles H. Deems, but the most effusive expression of praise and support for Howard’s Weird Tales character came from P. Schuyler Miller and Dr. John D. Clark, a pair of fans that had put together “A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career,” and had written to Howard for further details on the Cimmerian, which the Texan readily supplied them with.
Sales piled up, with Weird Tales “paying regularly” (CL3.431), but Howard’s mother still needed a great deal of care:
Seeing we could expect nothing from specialists or hospitals we brought her home, in the early part of March, and we’ve been here ever since. We got goats and for weeks she lived mainly on their milk. She seemed to be improving a little when she had an attack of acute pleurisy on her right side, which until then hadn’t been affected. My father handled that, and she was definitely on the mend, although the sweats never ceased, when in the early part of April we had the worst dust storm I ever saw in my life, and she developed pneumonia. […] I don’t know whether she’ll live or not. […] She started sweating in January and it’s just the last few days that there has been any appreciable lessening of it. Many a night she had to be changed six or seven times, and that many times a day—sometimes more. Woman after woman we hired, and they quit, either worn out by their work, or unwilling to do it, though my father and I did most of it. Sometimes when we could get a couple of good women we’d get a short breathing spell. Again there were times when we couldn’t get anybody, and I not only took care of my mother, while my father handled his wide practice, but did all the housework, washing, and cooking. I’ve gone for nearly a week at a time without even taking off my shoes, just snatching a nap as I could between times. Things are better now, but anything can happen, and I’m not optimistic. (CL3.458-460)
At the same time as Howard struggled to write and support his parents, Novalyne Price was less than understanding and supportive of both demands on his time and attention. Of Weird Tales in particular, Price later recalled:
From the way he talks, he’s making a good many sales to Argosy, sales to Action Stories, but the thing that seems to upset him is that Weird Tales still owes him about a thousand dollars and doesn’t pay. He appreciates Wright for giving him a start in selling stories, but sometimes he calls Wright a two-bit editor; a man who can’t recognize anything good; a dyspeptic; a small man who gags at a gnat and swallows a camel. Although he uses such barbed epithets, he really doesn’t mean to be malicious. The trouble with Wright (I take it) is that he seems very concerned with what the readers say or write. He doesn’t take into consideration that readers are a fickle lot. “I lose readers sometimes,” Bob said. “I admit that. But, damn it, I always gain them back or get new ones. Wright forgets that. It’s a damn losing battle.” (OWWA 278)
He did gain them back. The April 1936 issue of Weird Tales featured the final installment of The Hour of the Dragon, and in praise Mrs. John A. Heller wrote:
Robert E. Howard’s stories are always fascinating from start to finish and I know this new serial will never be a disappointment. I notice in the Eyrie someone asks to have Howard’s stories about King Kull revived. Come to think of it, I think the King was a more fascinating character than Conan. I remember I was bitterly disappointed when he dropped the King for Conan. However, Conan has won his spurs with me, and I do not want him to be dropped entirely in favor of further stories about King Kull. I would like him to give us stories of each in sort of a rotating schedule. Still the King will have to go places to win back the place he used to have and lost to Conan; he only lost it because Howard dropped him entirely. (WGP 82)
The readers of Weird Tales voted The Hour of the Dragon as the best part of the April issue, and though the May 1936 number contained no new fiction from Howard, the Eyrie was loaded with praise for the conclusion of the serial, from J. MacKay Tait of Nova Scotia and G. A. Robinson of Kingston, Jamaica, Weird Tales author Ronal Kayser and regular letter-writer Gertrude Hemken, as well as from Ivan Funderburgh, Elanor Layton, and Donald Allgeier. Robert E. Howard had a letter published:
Enthusiasm impels me to pause from burning spines off cactus for my drouth-bedeviled goats long enough to give three slightly dust-choked cheers for the April cover illustration. The color 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. I must also express my appreciation to Mr. Napoli, who has done a splendid job of illustrating my serial. I hope the readers have liked the yarn as well as I liked writing it. (CL3.462)
More privately, Howard would write that: “I believe of all the various clans of readers, the weird and scientific-fiction fans are the most loyal and active. […] I find it more and more difficult to write anything but western yarns.” (CL3.461) Howard noted that he had not “written a weird story for nearly a year,” but perhaps the sale encouraged him, as he began a new weird, though he never completed it. (CL3.438)
Howard’s story in the June 1936 issue of Weird Tales was “Black Canaan,” this time illustrated by Harold S. De Lay. “Black Canaan” was a story Lovecraft had urged his friend to write (cf. CL2.130-134, 158), but which had failed to place and had to be rewritten to Wright’s requirements to sell:
Ignore my forthcoming “Black Canaan”. It started out as a good yarn, laid in the real Canaan, which lies between Tulip Creek and the Ouachita River in southwestern Arkansas, the homeland of the Howards, but I cut so much of the guts out of it, in response to editorial requirements, that in its published form it won’t much resemble the original theme […] (CL3.438-439)
Wright was sensitive to the reader’s comments, which he knew well from the fan-letters he read and quoted in each Eyrie, and sensitive to sales his criticisms probably echoed what he perceived as their tastes, as E. Hoffmann Price once recalled:
Wright once said, “Often I buy a story because I like it. But always, I am obliged first to consider whether my readers would like that yarn. Many a time, I’ve accepted things which I did not care for, but which I felt would please many of the readers.” (BOTD 13)
The readers thought more of the story than Two-Gun Bob did, and it was voted the most popular in the issue. Praise and criticism for Howard once more showered the Eyrie, from E. A. Taylor, J. F. MacDuffee, Robert Hoyer, Charles H. Bert, W.A. Betikofer, and once again the irrepressible Gertrude Hemken:
And then I laid down my WT after having read the conclusion of The Hour of the Dragon—with a sigh of satisfaction—as of accomplishing a thing well done. The whole story was brimful of excitement, fun, eye-widening horror—it’s just about the best I’ve ever read in WT. Mr. Howard certainly created a dynamic character when he introduced Conan. One thing I noticed a bit out of order—Conan asked for Zenobia to rule as his queen. I wonder how long that will last? (WGP 85)
July 1936 saw the first installment of Howard’s Conan serial “Red Nails,” the first of three, with interior art by Harold S. De Lay (who would illustrate the rest of the serial) and a cover by Margaret Brundage. Praise for The Hour of the Dragon was still occupying the Eyrie, in the form of another letter from Alvin V. Pershing. Fans of Howard at the magazine must have been looking forward to more tales from Two-Gun Bob, and The Phantagraph was set to publish the second part of “The Hyborian Age” in an August supplement, and the third in October-November. At this point with the publication of “Red Nails,” Weird Tales still owed Howard something around $1,350, but were paying it off, and relations seemed almost normal once again. (CLIMH 132) Margaret Brundage remembers:
I came into the offices one day and Wright informed me of Howard’s suicide. We both just sat around and cried for most of the day. He was always my personal favorite. (WTS 68)
In the Howard household, Hester Jane Howard had been on her deathbed for some time. Two weeks before his death, Robert E. Howard had informed Kline that “In the event of my death, please send all checks for me to my father, Dr. I .M. Howard,” and likewise marked two manuscripts marked “In the event of my death, send these two stories to Farnsworth Wright, Editor of Weird Tales, 840 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago.” (CLIMH 84) The last of Howard’s letters—to E. Hoffmann Price, his friend and peer at Weird Tales, and a note to Otto Binder, Kline’s representative in New York, were postmarked 3 June and 5 June, respectively. The next week would be spent at his mother’s side as she slipped into a coma from which she would never awaken. Robert E. Howard committed suicide on 11 June 1936; his mother passed away 31 hours later, on the 12 June. Howard never saw the July issue of Weird Tales.
New issues of a magazine typically come out at the beginning of the month, and not infrequently at the end of the previous month. News of Howard’s death was delayed by the necessity of funeral services, then went out in letters from Dr. Howard to his son’s correspondents, and from there quickly made the rounds. Farnsworth Wright was on vacation, and did not receive the news until the beginning of July, by which point it was too late to mention in that month’s issue of Weird Tales. To Howard’s friend Thurston Torbett, Wright wrote:
I feel a great sense of personal loss in Howard’s death, for he was one of my literary discoveries, and although I had never met him, we have corresponded for twelve years, during which time I had come to know him and admire him both as a friend and as a writer of genius. (CLIMH 67)
In early July Otis Adelbert Kline wrote to Carl Jacobi:
He finished his last story for Weird Tales, which had bought his first story, and took it to his mother, saying: “Mother, it is finished.” (CLIMH 69)
No letters from Howard survive that attest to this event, nor is the title of the story given, but was likely one of the manuscripts that Dr. Howard sent to Weird Tales after his son’s death, and in accordance with his instructions. These stories were “Dig Me No Grave” and “The Fire of Asshurbanipal”—Dr. Howard’s letter indicates one of the manuscripts also contained “The Black Hound of Death,” but the ledger suggests that this story, which had been rejected by Thrilling Mystery, was accepted on 13 May 1936. (cf. CLIMH 86-87, 367) Robert E. Howard’s dealings with Weird Tales had now entered a posthumous phase, with Dr. Howard working to settle his son’s estate, including the considerable monies due from Weird Tales, and the rights to his son’s published prose and poetry.
Notice of Howard’s death went out in the August number, which contained the second installment of “Red Nails,” later voted the best of the issue. An unknowing Gertrude Hemken and Charles H. Bert showered praise on “Black Canaan” and The Hour of the Dragon in the Eyrie. The mourning proper began with the October issue—there being no issue for September—with elegies from H. P. Lovecraft, E. Hoffmann Price, Robert Bloch, and Seabury Quinn, appreciation from Irvin T. Gould, Gertrude Hemken, and Robert A. Madle. The poem R.E.H. from R. H. Barlow accompanied the final installment of Howard’s last Conan story, which tied for first place in the most popular stories of that issue.
November’s Weird Tales had Howard’s posthumous tale “The Black Hound of Death,” with another illustration by Harold S. De Lay, and Howard continued to be the main subject of the Eyrie. December, which featured “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” with both cover and interior art by J. Allen St. John, was much the same. Letters from fans would continue to cross the editor’s desk for years, and in January 1937 Wright wrote quite sincerely: “By his death WEIRD TALES has suffered an irreparable loss.” (WGP 98)
BOTD The Book of the Dead (E. Hoffmann Price, 2001, Arkham House)
CL The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda)
CLIMH The Collected Letters of Doctor Isaac M. Howard (2011)
OWWA One Who Walked Alone (Novalyne Price Ellis, 1998)
WGP Robert E. Howard: World’s Greatest Pulpster (Dennis McHaney, 2005)
WTS The Weird Tales Story (Robert Weinberg, 1999)