“The Wright Hook” (or, the origin of “Spear and Fang”) Essay
“Spear and Fang” is certainly not one of Howard’s best tales, but it is with this story that the young Texan became professionally published, in the July 1925 issue of a then fairly recent pulp magazine, Weird Tales.
Weird Tales, which had begun publication in March 1923, claimed to be the first magazine entirely devoted to tales of the weird and the fantastic. However, its first year of existence had been quite chaotic and it was on the verge of cancellation. Lacking direction, suffering from a series of changes in format and frequency of publication, the magazine was failing to build a solid base of readers.
All that would change in late 1924 when Farnsworth Wright was hired as the new editor. Wright had an eye for literary quality, knew what the readers liked (and he also realized that the latter was not necessarily linked to the former). His years at the helm of Weird Tales would later become legendary, but in his first few weeks at the job, Wright’s main task was to search for new talent and new direction.
It was obvious that the magazine couldn’t survive any longer on a steady diet of (hackneyed) ghost stories.
Robert E. Howard had been writing stories since 1921, aged 15. The young man had begun, and sometimes completed, dozens of tales, the immense majority of which were adventure yarns, aimed at – or written after he had read the latest issue of – his favorite pulp magazine: Adventure. We don’t know when exactly he discovered Weird Tales, but it was very early on, as he submitted two now-lost stories to the new publication: “The Mystery of Summerton Castle” and “The Phantom of Old Egypt.” Weird Tales was hunting talent while Adventure was a highly respected magazine, way above the literary abilities of the young Howard. It was only logical that Howard would try to sell a story to Weird Tales, and this is exactly what happened in November 1924.
On November 27, Howard announced the sale to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith in the following manner, if we are to believe Howard’s account in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (1928), his slightly fictionalized autobiographical novel:
– I sold a story to Bizarre Story Magazine.
– That’s great, said Clive [Clyde Smith]. You sure deserve it – you’ve been working long enough. How much did they pay you?
– Fifteen dollars – I’ll get paid when they publish it.
– When will that be?
– I don’t know; pretty soon, though, I guess.
Lindsey Tyson, one of Howard’s best friends, would later explain that: “Bob and me were rooming together at 417 Austin Avenue in Brownwood when Bob got notice that Weird Tales magazine had accepted his story and enclosed a check for about $20.00. He was about the happiest man that I have ever seen.”
“Spear and Fang,” the tale Wright had just accepted for Weird Tales, would launch Howard’s career – even if the initial going would be quite rougher than what he anticipated – and initiate his special relationship with Farnsworth Wright. Years later, at the time of Howard’s death, 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.”
For all these years, we had simply assumed that Howard wrote “Spear and Fang,” submitted it to Wright, who liked the subject and treatment well enough to publish it, because it was obvious he couldn’t have been that impressed by Howard’s literary style at this point in his career. It turns out that things were a little more complex than that.
In “The Eyrie” (the readers’ column) of the second issue of Weird Tales he edited (December 1924 issue, published November 1st), Wright wrote:
The inclusion in this issue of the first of two cavemen stories by C. M. Eddy, Jr. [“With Weapons of Stone”], gives rise to reflections regarding a type of caveman story which we have never seen in print, but which ought to afford opportunity for plenty of thrills. Why has not someone written of a fight between a Cro-Magnon caveman and a Neandertal man?
We get plenty of manuscripts dealing with fights between dinosaurs and pterodactyls on the one hand and cavemen on the other, but we send them all back because these strange creatures had disappeared from the earth before the first great anthropoid apes rose to the stature of manhood, according to the records of the rocks as read by the geologists. But Neandertalers and Cro-Magnons existed side by side, and waged relentless and savage warfare against each other. (“The Eyrie,” in Weird Tales, December 1924, pgs. 176-177)
These first two paragraphs certainly read as the spur that led Howard to write “Spear and Fang,” but as it turns out, Wright provided much more than a spur. Here is the third paragraph, followed by a short extract from Howard’s tale:
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. (pg. 177)
More feared than mammoth or tiger, they had ruled the forests until the Cro-Magnon men had come and waged savage warfare against them. Of mighty power and little mind, savage, bestial and cannibalistic, they inspired the tribesmen with loathing and horror – a horror transmitted through the ages in tales of ogres and goblins, of werewolves and beast-men. […] Sometimes children went, and sometimes they returned not; and searchers found but signs of a ghastly feast, with tracks that were not the tracks of beasts, nor yet the tracks of men. (Robert E. Howard: “Spear and Fang”)
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 this is exactly what Howard did in early November 1924, probably the very day he bought the latest issue of the magazine, faithfully following Wright’s suggestion. Wright accepted the tale because he had, in a way, specifically requested it. At $16 (or $15, depending on the source), payable on publication, it was probably the best investment Wright ever made.
The rest, of course, is history.