Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Weird Tales Tourist, New Orleans: Robert E. Howard by Karen Joan Kohoutek

Visitors to New Orleans can find plenty of information on the sites associated with authors like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, and (that dude who wrote Confederacy of Dunces). Fewer people are aware of the city’s connections to the writers from the Weird Tales circle, but there are many, and easy enough to visit.

In 1919, Robert E. Howard’s father, Dr. Isaac Howard, attended seven weeks of medical training in New Orleans, bringing his wife and 13-year-old son (Finn 58). Howard wrote of his time there that “it was my fortune to be acquainted with some elderly maiden ladies by the name of Durell—gentlewomen of the old school living in semi-seclusion and striving to maintain the standards of a faded aristocracy, and reconcile their natures with the necessity which forced them to run a rooming-house” (A Means to Freedom 122).

New Orleans’ census records and property records steer us to “Durel” as the likely spelling. Howard scholar Rusty Burke has narrowed down Camille Durel as a good candidate for one of those gentlewomen, and at the time of the 1920 census (accessible through, she was the “keeper” of a rooming-house at 1904 Canal Street, where she lived with her younger sisters Delphine and Marie. If this is the correct family, then at the time of Howard’s visit, Camille would have been 49, Delphine 39, and Marie 37: only “elderly” to young eyes.

This address would fall in what is now about a three-block span of a recently reconstructed medical complex.

Given Howard’s remembered familiarity with a family of sisters named Durel, and the fact that the medical schools associated with Tulane were in the same area, the rooming-house at 1904 Canal seems like a plausible contender for the site of their stay.

Just before the passage where he introduces the Durells (sic), though, Howard refers to “my French landlady” in New Orleans, who “hated the Italians.” It’s hard to know whether it’s a result of the letter’s conversational style, but it almost sounds like “my French landlady” and the “elderly maiden ladies” aren’t the same people. In that case, the Durels could also been neighbors, running a rooming-house similar to wherever the Howards lived.

In 1932, Howard facilitated a meeting between his correspondents H. P.Lovecraft, who was visiting the city, and fellow Weird Tales writer E. Hoffmann Price, currently living there. According to Lovecraft’s letters, Price lived in the French Quarter at the time, and an address list of Howard’s correspondents shows Price living at 305 Royal (Derie 47-48). The building's main floor is currently home to the Mann Gallery.

This section of Royal is full of art galleries, expensive antique shops, and upscale boutiques, but it’s likely that the rooms on the upper stories were once affordable enough for a pulp writer to rent.

Talking about the Durel sisters, Howard described “the old Durell (sic) mansion in the heart of the French Quarter – now the Latin Quarter – once a stately, century-old residence, built with characteristic French style – now a hovel housing half a dozen squalid Italian families” (MTF 122). Rusty Burke’s research, based on New Orleans city directories, suggests 301 Royal as the location.

I’d like to believe this is true, because 301 Royal is next door to Price’s lodgings. In this corner view, 301 Royal is on the left, with 305 just on the right.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

F. Thurston Torbett and F. Lee Baldwin on Robert E. Howard by Bobby Derie

Marlin, Texas in Falls County, lies about 160 miles from Cross Plains; the town hosted the Torbett Sanitorium, run by Dr. Frank M. Torbett, who lived there with his family. The small health resort catered to those who suffered tuberculosis, and over the years Robert E. Howard and his family would make the long journey by car several times so that his mother, Hester Jane Ervin Howard, could receive treatment, in stays that sometimes lasted for weeks. The earliest surviving letter from Robert in 1923 is addressed from Marlin (CL 1.3), and there were visits in 1931 (CL 2.195), 1935 (CL 3.388-391, 421) and early 1936 (CL 3.415, 425, 426).

Back cover ad: WT's story
by Torbett & Howard
Along the way, the Howards became friends with the Torbetts—a friendship evidenced by the personal letter that Dr. Howard sent to the Torbetts on the death of his wife and son in 1936 (IMH 51-52), and by the encouraging fan letter which Mrs. Torbett had written to Strange Tales asking for more of Howard’s stories, published in the January 1933 issue. The two young men, Robert E. Howard and Frank Thurston Torbett, were especially fast friends, and stayed in touch when Robert was out of town through letters—two of which from 1936 survive (CL 3.436-437, 464). Robert described Thurston in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

While in Marlin I had many enjoyable conversations with the son of the man who gave me the Coryell County history, a talented young man, with remarkable artistic ability. He is not only a portrait-painter of great ability but has considerable literary talent. He is a great admirer of your work, by the way. I think he could have been a success either as a painter or a writer, but, while attending an art school in California, he became interested in the occult, and now devotes practically all his time to this study. He is sincere in his devotion to it, but I regret his interest in it, since it has caused him to neglect his undoubted talents. I can not have any sympathy for this occult business. However, if that’s what he wants to do and enjoys doing, then I’m not one to criticize. (MF 2.907, CL 3.391)

Thurston would, like his mother, write letters to the editors of the pulp magazines to promote Bob’s work:

Dear Editor:
At last, in the June issue of STRANGE TALES, I found what I’ve been looking for in those pages for a long time—a story by Robert E. Howard. I enjoyed his People of the Dark very much.
            I have been following the work of this able writer for several years, and hope to see more of his work in the Clayton publications in the future. In my opinion he is one of the best writers of this type of fiction we have today.
            I might also add that I like all the stories in STRANGE TALES. They are all good. My only regret is that it is not a monthly publication.—F. T. Torbett, Box 265, Marlin, TX
(Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror Jan 1933)

T. Torbett, of Marlin, Texas, writes: "I've just read with appreciation the February issue of WT. As far as I am concerned, a story each month by C. L. Moore and Robert E. Howard would constitute a complete issue. Howard's Hour of the Dragon is superb and so was Moore's Yvala. Moore's The Dark Land in the January number I also found to be of excellent literary quality and I liked the author's accompanying illustration. I might also add that I like Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith, Paul Ernst, Frank Owen and most all authors who contribute to WT. (Weird Tales Apr 1936)

C.L. Moore
Thurston’s promotion of Catherine L. Moore alongside Robert is likely due to the fact that the two were in correspondence; as evidenced by the fact that it was Torbett who first informed Moore of the death of Robert E. Howard. (IMH 52) However, the Thurston Torbett’s strongest tie with Howard occurred after his friend’s death.

F. T. Torbett writes from Marlin, Texas: "I want to add my voice to those who are requesting reprints of Robert E. Howard's early stories. I am asking this solely because of the merit of Howard's stories and not because he was for some years one of the best friends I ever had. His was a powerful personality, of a type that can never be forgotten. I never knew a man more devoted to home and family, or more loyal to his friends, or more honest and upright. I miss his companionship more than I can say. I am sure that the future of WEIRD TALES will be a bright one, for the quality of the stories is steadily improving."
(Weird Tales May 1938)

“A Thunder of Trumpets” by Robert E. Howard and Thurston Torbett appeared in the September 1938 issue of Weird Tales—the advertisement in the preceding issue declared:

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Kid, Two-Gun, and History by Todd B. Vick*

Few American lives have elicited more tales, rumors, and folklores than that of Henry McCarty. I would go so far as to say that of all the famous Americans who have lived such a short life span—two meager decades—McCarty has the most amount of words written about him. He perhaps has also influenced more authors than any other old west figure. And despite all this, he remains one of the most elusive figures of the old west. So who is Henry McCarty? History knows him as one Billy the Kid. The foremost scholar of Billy the Kid, Frederick Nolan, claims “Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid.” (Nolan 3). Evidence for this lies in the fact that The Kid did not receive serious scholarly attention until nearly 100 years after his death. 

            Why is that? What makes Billy the Kid so fascinating that for the better part of the 20th century his life has resisted serious research and remained in the mainstream arena of folklore and myth? No scholar of the Kid seems to have a definitive answer to that question. It might simply be that facts are not as exciting as the mysterious. Regardless, from the late 1950s to the present day reliable research, scholarly articles and books have been written and new historical documents uncovered. Granted, the mythos remains and makes for wonderful movies and exciting novels but we now live in what should be considered a more enlightened era with regard to our understanding of The Kid.
            There was a long period of time where scarcely a word was written or spoken about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars. This span occurred between the death of the infamous sheriff (Pat Garrett) who killed Billy the Kid in 1908 until 1925 when Harvey Fergusson raised the question in an American Mercury article, “Who remembers Billy the Kid?” Apparently, the Kid’s reputation had faded and Fergusson wondered why (Nolan 295). All this would soon change in 1926 when Walter Noble Burns published The Saga of Billy the Kid, and the Kid would once again be thrust into the limelight of folklore and myth. This was the very book that sparked interest in the mind of a young boy who would later become the premier scholar of Billy the Kid studies, Frederick Nolan. Moreover, Walter Noble Burns, with his flamboyant style and highly exaggerated account of Billy the Kid, would also influence a series of western writers of the early to mid twentieth century. One in particular was a popular pulp fiction writer from Cross Plains, Texas named Robert E. Howard. Although the focus of Howard’s writing had pretty much been the fantasy and action adventure genres, Burn’s book would ultimately set Howard in a new creative direction.
It is no secret to Robert E. Howard aficionados that Howard had a serious interest in the Old West. This interest became so predominant toward the latter years of his life he shifted his writing career in the direction of publishing western stories and even proclaimed in correspondence to August Derleth:
“I’m seriously contemplating devoting all my time and efforts to western writing, abandoning all other forms of work entirely; the older I get the more my thoughts and interests are drawn back over the trails of the past; so much has been written, but there is so much that should be written.” (Howard Letters 2:  372).

In studies about Robert E. Howard’s western writing career there is no definitive time frame or specific cause that pushed Howard in the direction of western tales. Howard had written westerns in his earlier years and sporadically throughout his fantasy and action adventure years, but what made him tell Derleth that he wanted to devote all his time to western writing? There was likely no single factor or date, rather a series of events that hinged upon at least one thing—Walter Noble Burn’s book The Saga of Billy the Kid.
Walter Noble Burns was born October 24th, 1872. As a teenager he became a junior reporter for the Louisville, KY Evening Post. (Nolan 295). This led Burns into a fairly long career as a writer and reporter which eventually led him to Chicago where he would work for both the Chicago Examiner and Chicago Tribune. It was his work with the Tribune that would launch him into his most famous research and work. In 1923 Burns would visit New Mexico to interview  various people who were still alive during the Lincoln County Wars and the days of Billy the Kid. This research would ultimately end up in Burns’ book The Saga of Billy the Kid (from here on referred to as SBK).
SBK was the definitive book about Billy the Kid’s life until the late 1950s and early 1960s when scholars took pen in hand and began seriously researching the Lincoln County Wars. Today SBK is considered nothing but a novel work on the Lincoln County Wars. It has all but been dismissed as exaggerations, myths, and fun folklore. Regardless, from 1926, the year SBK was published, to the early 1960s, Burns’ work set the tone for movies, western pulp stories, dime novels, and even magazine articles about Billy the Kid.
When SBK was published it quickly became a national best seller, rivaling the sales of other popular books of its day. In just a few short months Nolan explains,

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A 2017 Howard Days Highlight: Gaming

The Monolith Conan Game
On the Howard House
front porch
As mentioned in an earlier post, I've been attending Howard Days since 2012, and what I have noticed each year is there is always one or two things over the weekend that stand out from everything else. One of this year's highlights was the RPG and Board gaming in the Cross Plains public library and on Robert E. Howard's front porch.

This was not the first year Howard Days hosted gaming. A few years ago, the RPG game launched on Kickstarter by Modiphius, was playtested by a group of gamers in Robert E. Howard's dining room. This very RPG game, now a successful Kickstarter campaign was once again played by a group of gamers in the Cross Plains Public Library.

There was an acting Dungeon Master (DM) for the gamers, and from what I've been told, I did not witness the gaming in the library, it was quite eventful. A smaller faction of the Cross Plains Library RPG gaming group relocated to the front porch of the Howard House. This small group set up the new, highly successful Kickstarter board game, called Conan, created by Monolith Board Games LLC. Having participated in this Kickstarter campaign, I spent a good portion of that game watching the inner workings and witnessing it at play.

Howard House front
porch gaming
This game's Overlord (who functions similar to a DM) was Wesley, from Wyoming. Game players included Wesley's wife Elizabeth, Chris, James, and Danny. The group selected a pre-provided scenario, characters, and then simply followed the rules of the game. This was the first time I had seen this game actually being played live. And though it is slightly complicated, once the participants got involved and began understanding the rules, the game slowly picked up and became increasingly more interesting. I am certainly glad I was able to witness this game play, especially since I own the game.

But here's the kicker, while the Monolith Conan game was being played on Robert E. Howard's front porch, the game play was being filmed for YouTube by Robert E. Howard's great nephew, Jim Howard! A nice added feature, to say the least.

I was told by several of the gamers that they wanted to make this an annual affair at Howard Days. I think that is a wonderful idea, and I certainly hope to see more gaming at subsequent Howard Days.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A 2017 Howard Days Highlight: The Robert E. Howard Bar Guide

I've been attending Howard Days since 2012, and what I have noticed each year is there is always one or two things over the weekend that stand out from everything else. One of this year's highlights was Bobby Derie's free book titled The Robert E. Howard Bar Guide.

Bobby Derie, who is a regular guest writer here at On an Underwood No. 5, sent me a message via Facebook, about this idea a few months prior to Howard Days. A month or so later, he sent me the first 20 or so pages to proof and fact check, and after reading those pages, I knew Howard fans were in for a huge treat. Of course, any article or book from Derie is a treat, and well worth reading (and I'm not being bias simply because he's a regular at On An Underwood No. 5 - just ask around, people will confirm this).

If you were unable to attend Howard Days this year and have not obtained a copy of the Bar Guide, then you're in luck. It is still available in PDF format, at this link.

The Bar Guide is a blend of history and brew. The first 20 or so pages detail REH's history with alcohol, prohibition, bootlegging, and is "a biographical look at drink and drinking in the life of Robert E. Howard." (excerpt from page 1). This is followed by various concoctions, recipes, and assorted exotic drinks that Howard discusses or has himself experienced. For this, Derie makes use of Howard's stories and his letters. He also includes newspaper clippings from the Cross Plains Review about the various times Cross Plains legalized beer (in Callahan County), about bootleggers in the area, vintage ads about alcohol, about "moonshine," etc. This certainly adds a nice flavor to the contents.

Various types of drinks, straight and mixed, are included, referenced from Howard's works or letters, and "period recipes culled from contemporary cocktail guides" (Howard Works, The Robert E. Howard Guide) The bar guide is also peppered throughout with illustrations from Weird Tales, Argosy, Spicy-Adventure Stories, and other publications. And, the back cover sports a hand-drawn illustration by Howard himself. The print editions that were distributed at this year's Howard Days were numbered and will surely end up being a nice collector's item in the future.

With much appreciation, let's all raise a glass to Bobby Derie for this wonderful Bar Guide. Cheers!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Stars Rush Like a Blow to the Face: Post Oaks and Sand Roughs and the Freedom of the Unreal by Jason Ray Carney

Introduction (by Todd B. Vick)

I first met Jason Ray Carney in March of 2016. We were both presenting papers in the Pulp Studies group at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA-ACA) conference in Seattle, Washington. "'No plot, no sequence, no moral': Robert E. Howard's Post Oak and Sand Roughs and the Unreality of the Ordinary" was the title of his paper. The title had sparked my interest, especially since everything I had read about Howard’s Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (POASR) was a discussion about the novella being a semi-autobiographical work from Howard. It was to be read as such, but its autobiographical accuracy was to be taken with several grains of salt. That being the case, I was curious about the contents of Carney’s paper. Would it be the same stuff I had read before? No, in fact, it was not. Carney had, more or less, turned that notion on its head and requested his reader examine the story as a work of modern fiction, in light of the development of the novel. Howard’s story was an excellent example of the modern novel. To say this idea surprised me would be a slight understatement. He had my attention. He had me thinking outside the box. I like that.

You are in for a treat with this blog post. Once again, Carney is going to peel back the covers of POASR and ask us, his reader, to see it in a different light. He will delve into the novel’s formlessness, how blog posts are akin to this formlessness (I kid you not), and then apply all this to POASR, along with the idea of genres of freedom, the failure of the novel, and REH and the pulp writer as pugilist. That’s a lot to take in, you might be thinking. It is, to a certain degree, but he does a first-rate job of explaining how this is all possible, and why it is important. In addition to his blog post, he commissioned artist Jessica Robinson to illustrate his work/REH, a first for On An Underwood No. 5. So, without further ado, I’ll leave you with Jason Ray Carney. Enjoy!  —Todd B. Vick

I. The Blog Post and Genre Anxiety

First, I want to thank Todd for inviting me to write a guest blog post. I try to keep a blog and struggle to maintain it, and the primary reason for this is that I can't quite wrap my mind around the "anything-goes" genre of the blog post: its conventions, its goals, its use-value for readers. Here are some of my questions: Are blog posts formal academic writing? Are they a kind of magazine writing for an educated but casual audience? (I wouldn't call the REH fan community 'casual'). More specifically: if I'm discussing literature (one of the few things I feel qualified to substantively blog about), am I writing a digital version of literary criticism or does the blog post context change things fundamentally? Should I use footnotes? Should I use media-specific elements, such as embedded art, like the original drawing I commissioned the talented illustrator, Jessica Robinson, for this post? Should I use direct quotations? Should I use particular academic citation and style guide? If I'm reflecting on whether or not I enjoy a particular literary work, have I stopped doing literary criticism and begun writing a mere review? How personal or objective should I be?

Snaps open a can of beer. This might help.

The formlessness of the blog post as a genre spins my head, leaves me at a loss regarding how to proceed, and, so, to begin, I'm going to take my lead from a young H.P. Lovecraft writing in 1917 to Rheinhart Kleiner. Defending his wide-ranging epistolary style, Lovecraft asks Kleiner the same thing I'll ask you, dear reader: "Regard my communications not as studied letters, but as fragments of discourse, spoken with the negligence of oral intercourse rather than the formal correctness of literary correspondence." Replace "blog post" with "communications" and "studied letters" with "formal essay," and we're getting somewhere.

Robert E. Howard
Illustration by Jessica Robinson
In contemplating writing this blog post, I feel kindred to the artistically frustrated Steve Costigan, the protagonist of Robert E. Howard's unpublished novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, as he contemplates writing not sword and sorcery, adventure, or gothic horror, but the realism:

Steve had wished to write life as he saw it--he had torturously pounded out a few realistic tales and had found the subject the most difficult of all. ‘I don’t know where to take hold,’ he said slowly. ‘Life is full of tag ends which never begin and never end. There’s no plot, no sequence, no moral.’

"I don't know where to take hold." Yep. I could say the same thing about writing blog posts, but I'm going to give it my best here. Every book or article I've read that gives advice about blogging basically boils down to these same bits of advice: choose a topic and imagine a specific audience; then, those decisions made, write about something apropos to your selected topic and in a style that will satisfy the needs of the particular audience you have in mind. Don't forget the blog post's chronological structure and ephemeral nature. Blog posts, unlike journal articles and academic monographs, are date-indexed; unlike journal peer-reviewed scholarship, which has a chance of maintaining its worth despite its aging, blog posts are acutely ephemeral, like acid-rich articles in a daily rag. Though they don't yellow with age and fall apart as papery snowflakes, they do disappear into the digital archive.

Bearing this advice in mind, let me put all my cards on the table, remove my black hat, and hang my holstered, silver-filigreed revolvers on a crooked nail (excuse the trite similes as I establish atmosphere): I'm writing a meandering blog post about Robert E. Howard's unpublished quasi-autobiographical novel, referred to as Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (Important note: Patrice Louinet told me recently that this is not actually the title of the novel; instead, it should be more accurately labeled Grasping at the Edge, a name referenced in an REH letter somewhere, though I am ignorant of the specific letter). My assumed audience is a group of diehard Robert E. Howard fans who read or are open to reading On an Underwood No. 5, who have the patience for a long essay, and who believe Howard was not merely a pulp raconteur who spun yarns that entertain (he is this, of course!) but was also a sincere literary artist who deserves wider visibility in Anglophone literary history, in the concrete form of academic monographs and articles, conference panels, and university courses that treat early 20th-century literature, popular culture, and genre fiction. Finally, I'm going to try my best to affect a minimally academic, hospitable, no BS, yet substantive prose style that hopefully entertains, educates, and starts a conversation.

II. Genre Anxiety in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Conan and the OAK, Part 5 - 1936 - 1946 by Bobby Derie

A week before [Robert E. Howard] killed himself, he wrote to Otis Adelbert Kline (his literary agent except for sales to Weird Tales): “In the event of my death, please send all checks for me to my father, Dr. I M. Howard.” His father found two stories on which he had typewritten: “In the event of my death, send these two stories to Farnsworth Wright, Editor of Weird Tales, 840 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago.” (IMH 84)

Robert E. Howard had made preparations for his death; Kline confirmed in a letter to Carl Jacobi that:

About three weeks ago he wrote me a letter saying that, in case of his death I should get in touch with his father. (IMH 68)

Kline’s letter is praiseworthy, both of Howard's and Kline’s ability to market him, noting that despite caring for his dying mother, Howard “has been doing a lot of brilliant writing, and we have opened a number of new markets for him with character-continuity series.” (IMH 68)

As a client from May 1933 to July 1936 (38 months), Robert E. Howard had cleared at least $2150 through Kline’s sales—and almost assuredly more, when you consider the stories that don’t appear in the ledger or Otto Binder’s commissions list. The Kline agency for its part probably cleared about $250-300 in commissions (at least the standard 10% of Howard’s sales, possibly 15% for sales before 1935). By the numbers, this wouldn’t make Howard the Kline agency’s best client; in 1936 John Scott Douglas “was good for at least thirty to forty dollars a month commissions in New York alone.” (OAK 16.1) However, Kline also stated that:

I send back for keeps approximately 80% of the material I receive [...] Of the other twenty per cent, I accept perhaps a fourth, and sometimes as high as a half, depending on how the stuff runs. The balance is returned to the writers for revision, some if [sic] it again and again, until they have done as well as they can do with it. Only then is it put on offer, and of course not all of it goes to New York. Some goes to Canada, England or other foreign countries. I select the markets to which it seems best suited. (OAK 16.2)

By this standard, at least, Howard seems to have been ahead of the pack: the only story Kline is known to have sent back without trying it on the market was “Wild Water” (IMH 19), and while Kline initially struggled to market Howard’s fiction, and advised him on revising his work and breaking into new markets, as the years went on Kline was selling a greater and greater percentage of the work that Howard sent him; Binder’s commissions list for the New York end of the business in 1935 lists more commissions from sales of the Texan’s work than any other client. (OAK 5.18) If Howard was not Kline’s best client, he was at least a steady one, and an appreciative one, as Kline uses a statement from Howard in the brochure for his United Sales Plan: