REH and Weird Tales

Robert E. Howard was an avid reader of Weird Tales, the famous fantasy pulp magazine that was launched in the spring of 1923. He may have seen the first issue of the magazine while studying in Brownwood. The issues of Weird Tales usually appeared a month earlier than their cover date would suggest. Howard’s first known mention of Weird Tales was in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith (July 7, 1923):

I sent a story to the Weird Tales, ‘The Phantom of Old Egypt,’ which I suppose they will turn down.

While it is well known that living in Cross Plains, Howard could not always buy the current issue — still it is reasonable to assume he read most of the issues. In a letter to Carl Jacobi (March 22, 1932), he mentions the nearest first-class newsstand (in Brownwood) is forty miles away:

It was not my fortune to read either of the other stories you mentioned; in fact, I live so far out of civilization, as it were, that 1 can’t keep track of the magazines very well. It’s forty miles to the nearest first-class news-stand, so my magazine reading is rather desultory.

In this post I single out some Weird Tales stories that probably influenced Howard on what he chose to write in that particular month. Occasionally I also mention stories whose influences were more long-term.

Howard sent a letter to Weird Tales, ca. January 1926, where he praised Seabury Quinn’s stories of the occult detective Jules de Grandin:

These are sheer masterpieces. The little Frenchman is one of those characters who live in fiction. I look forward with pleasurable anticipation to further meetings with him.

Years later Howard also tried his hands in detective fiction, although his most famous detective, Steve Harrison, operates quite differently than de Grandin. Robert M. Price thinks the name “Harrison” could be a tip of the hat to de Grandin’s base of operations in Harrisonville, and River Street (where many Steve Harrison tales take place) could have been suggested by the Harrisonville River.

The appearance of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales, February 1928) was a critical importance in the development of the young Texan’s career. Deuce Richardson in his essay “The Call of Kathulos: Kull, Skull and ‘Call’” has already pointed out the similarities between Lovecraft’s tale and some of Howard’s stories written just after its appearance, or within a few months.

Howard sent a letter to The Eyrie, which was published in Weird Tales, ca. April 1928:

Mr. Lovecraft’s latest story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, is indeed a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature.

A scholar named Kuthulos is a protagonist of “The Cat and the Skull” and “The Screaming Skull of Silence,” both tales written in the spring of 1928, and subsequently rejected by Weird Tales. It is possible the name Kuthulos came from the title of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” which appeared in Weird Tales at the start of the year. The second tale has even more similarities with the Lovecraft story. Like the sailors in HPL’s tale, Kull and his entourage are faced with a castellated tomb with a cosmic monster that is not dead but dreaming for aeons. Just as R’lyeh was found to be of “greenish stone,” Kull and his men find a gong and mallet “apparently of jade.” In both cases, a cosmic menace is dealt a crippling (perhaps mortal) blow.

“Skull-Face” (Weird Tales, Oct/Nov/Dec 1929), written in the fall of 1928 shows also influences from Lovecraft’s story: the use of the first person, the technique of story within the story, the importance of the sea and the secrets hidden in its depths.

Surama, the resurrected Atlantean villain of Lovecraft’s revision story “The Last Test” (Weird Tales, Nov 1928), bears a curious likeness to Kathulos in many ways. Howard probably read this story around the same time as he wrote “Skull-Face.”

Lovecraft’s influence, and especially of his tale “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales, April 1930), can be seen in a lot of stories REH pounded out on his faithful Underwood No. 5 in the second part of 1930, after starting his correspondence with the older writer in the summer. These tales include “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” (Weird Tales, December 1936), “Dig Me No Grave” (Weird Tales, February 1937), “The Black Stone” (Weird Tales, November 1931), “The Thing on the Roof” (Weird Tales, Feburary 1932) and “The Hoofed Thing” (rejected by Strange Tales). The many references to HPL’s stories and emerging mythology are well attested to and lie outside the scope of this blog post.

But another story was published in the summer, whose influence may be similarly important, Harry Noyes Pratt’s “The Curse of Ximu-tal” (Weird Tales, August 1930). Here, inspired by a jade image of a giant snake, the narrator discovers a Mayan temple and a giant green snake that could swallow an elephant. Many Conan stories feature giant snakes, cities built of jade-like green-stone with names beginning with a “X” (Xuchotl, Xuthal, Xapur).

It is probably after reading Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales, August 1931) that Howard had decided to change his conception of the Black Stone: his new stories written in the fall, “People of the Dark” (Strange Tales, June 1932) and “Worms of the Earth” (Weird Tales, November 1932) feature a small stone instead of a monolith, as in “The Black Stone.”

The March 1932 issue of Weird Tales featured a story that had repercussions three years later, when REH wrote his last Conan tale, “Red Nails” (Weird Tales, Jul/Aug/Sep/Oct 1936). In Kirk Mashburn’s “The Vengeance of Ixmal” (Weird Tales, March 1932) the American leader of an excavation near a vampire-haunted village in Mexico turns out to be the reincarnation of an Aztec Prince, who was sacrificed on an altar by his lover princess Tascala. “Red Nails” has many Aztecian-sounding names and a princess called Tascela. We know REH had read and liked Mashburn’s stories, as noted in his letter to Mashburn, ca. March 1932:

Mr. Price mentions you often in his letters, and I have been much interested in your work in Weird Tales. I particularly remember “Tony”, “Sola”, “Placide’s Wife”, and your recent “Vengeance of Ixmal” — a powerful tale.

The April 1932 issue of Weird Tales (on sale April 1st) contained a story that could have been a springboard of REH’s reincarnation tales featuring James Allison. In Nictzin Dyalhis’s “The Red Witch” (Weird Tales, April 1932) scientist Randall Crone becomes conscious of his ancient life in an Ice Age tribe as the impetuous young warrior, Ron Kron, in love with the red-haired Red Dawn.

Howard’s first completed reincarnation story was “The Children of the Night” (Weird Tales, Apr/May 1931), which he wrote in September 1930. In that tale O’Donnel is struck unconscious by an accidental axe blow and drifts out of the darkness to find himself as a warrior of a primitive Celtic tribe in pre-Roman Britain fighting against the reptilian Children of the Night. In October 1931 Howard writes “People of the Dark” (Strange Tales, June 1932) where an accidental head injury leads John into a past life as Conan the Reaver, a Gaelic pirate. The reincarnation theme is also present in his poem “Cimmeria,” written in February 1932.

REH completed his first James Allison story, “Marchers of Valhalla,” in April of 1932. Allison lies at the end of a short and sickly life in rural Texas, but remembers a previous incarnation as a mighty yellow-haired warrior, Hialmar. Much has been written about how Jack London’s novel, The Star Rover has influenced the creation of James Allison, but the Dyalhis story could have been the final impetus for REH to start the James Allison series, where for the first time his reincarnated hero is living in the Ice Age and is in love with a gold-haired girl.

The story was rejected by Weird Tales in May. But it did not discourage Howard, who in a few weeks’ time completes “The Valley of the Worm” (Weird Tales, Feb 1934), one of his most famous stories, featuring the ?sir warrior Niord.

REH had created Conan the Cimmerian and wrote the first stories featuring the Cimmerian in February and March of 1932. According to Patrice Louinet, REH had written the third Conan story, “The God in the Bowl” (rejected by Weird Tales) in March. The story shows remarkable similarities to Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Gorgon” in the April issue, which theoretically appeared only at the start of April. In both stories a beautiful, but deadly, mythical entity kills an art collector. It could be just a strange coincidence, or perhaps REH somehow read Smith’s story previously.  REH and Smith have not started correspondence yet, and while it is possible Lovecraft had sent Howard this tale, it is not mentioned in REH’s correspondence.

The publication of Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales, May 1932) coincides with REH’s writing of “The Scarlet Citadel” (Weird Tales, January 1933). Smith story taking place in a subterranean catacomb with deadly monsters (in his case brain-sucking leeches) could have influenced REH when created the catacombs beneath the Citadel.

In the spring of 1934 Howard was immersed in writing his only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (Weird Tales, December 1935, Jan/Feb/Mar/Apr 1936). A source for the scenes in the Stygian pyramid may have been Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Charnel God” (Weird Tales, March 1934), with a temple for the dead, ghouls (the Khitan sorcerers are described as ghoulish by REH) and reanimation of corpses. We know REH admired the story as stated in a letter to CAS in May of 1934:

Yes, I certainly did like “The Charnel God” and its fine illustration, and the Malygris story came up to expectations splendidly. In some ways I liked the illustration even better than that of “The Charnel God”, though both were fine.

As an aside, both “The Charnel God,” (Weird Tales, March 1934), and “The Death of Malygris,” (Weird Tales, April 1934) were illustrated by CAS.

These are just a handful of instances where Howard “borrowed” ideas and concepts from his fellow Weird Tales writers in the pages of The Unique Magazine.

Sources:

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis: Notes on the Creation of the Conan Stories” (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, May 2002)

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis Part II: Notes on the Creation of the Conan Stories” (The Bloody Crown of Conan, May 2003)

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis Part III” (The Conquering Sword of Conan, December 2005)

Robert M. Price: “The Many Incarnations of Anton Zarnak,” in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak Supernatural Sleuth (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 2002)

Deuce Richardson: “The Call of Kathulos: Kull, Skull and ‘Call’”(The Cimmerian website, February 11, 2009).

The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2007-2008).

  • To Tevis Clyde Smith, July 7, 1923
  • To Weird Tales, ca. January 1926
  • To Weird Tales, ca. April 1928
  • To Kirk Mashburn, ca. March 1932
  • To Carl Jacobi, pm, March 22, 1932
  • To Clark Ashton Smith, pm, May 21 1934