Robert E. Howard’s Arkham

By the way, I recently took the liberty of using your mythical “Arkham” in a single-stanza rhyme which Mr. Wright accepted for Weird Tales, and which fell far short of doing justice to it’s subject. Here it is:

Arkham.

Drowsy and dull with age the houses blink

On aimless streets the rat-gnawed years forget—

But what inhuman figures leer and slink

Down the old alleys when the moon has set?

– Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 Dec 1931 (AMtF 1.238, CL2.280)

What did Robert E. Howard know of Arkham, which caused him to compose this quatrain? What might he have known? By December 1931, Lovecraft had published less than a dozen stories that mentioned the fictional town, which comprised what he sometimes called his “Arkham cycle.” (SL2.246) Most of these were published in Weird Tales, and many of them we can be sure by comments in his letters that Howard had read.

The eponymous dwelling of “The Picture in the House” (National Amateur Jul 1919, Weird Tales Jan 1924) was set in “an apparently abandoned road which I had chosen as the shortest cut to Arkham,” and places the town in New England. Howard had apparently missed this story when it came out, but Lovecraft apparently later sent him a copy. (AMtF 1.85, 97; CL2.93, 118)

“The Festival” (WT Jan 1925), Howard did read (AMtF 1.159; CL2.179), though as a locale it is set mainly in Kingsport until the very end, when the narrator ends up in St. Mary’s Hospital, where the kindly staff were helpful enough to borrow the copy of the Necronomicon from nearby Miskatonic University for his perusal.

“The Unnamable” (WT Jul 1925) also mentions St. Mary’s Hospital, but adds an “old burying ground” with “a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb.” While Lovecraft is not known to have ever sent Howard a copy of his street plan for Arkham, he did have a very definite geography developed in his imagination while writing of the place, one readers get a sense of in lines describing “a lonely field beyond Meadow Hill, a mile from the old burying ground, on a spot where an ancient slaughterhouse is reputed to have stood.”

One of the fuller descriptions of the land around Arkham was given in “The Colour Out of Space” (Amazing Stories Sep 1927), which opens with:

West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods no axe has ever cut. There are narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooks trickle without ever having caught the first glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but they are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.

It is not entirely clear if Howard ever read this story, as there are no mentions of it in his letters, but Lovecraft mentions it in his letters to Howard from time to time. (AMtF 2.533, 582, 656; SL4.170)

The “Colour” described Arkham as “a very old town full of witch legends,” but it was in “The Silver Key” (WT Jan 1929) that Lovecraft grows fulsom about the old town’s history, describing it as “the terrible witch-haunted old town of his forefathers in New England, and had experiences in the dark, amidst the hoary willows and tottering gambrel roofs.” This of course helps to point out Arkham as corresponding closely with Salem and its famous witch-trials, something that Lovecraft himself would confirm in an early note to Howard: “Old Salem with its spectral memories (the prototype of my fictional ‘Arkham’) is only about 60 miles from Providence.” (AMtF 1.31)

The Arkham Advertiser, the town newspaper, first made an appearance in “The Dunwich Horror” (WT Apr 1929); and Howard certainly read that story. (AMtF 1.17; CL2.50) While little of the town is described, much of the action centers around the Library of Miskatonic University. Howard, living in Cross Plains and having attended Howard Payne College in Brownwood, would at least have some impression of a college town in a rural district. Miskatonic University and the Arkham Advertiser would likewise appear in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (WT Aug 1931); Howard “went thirty miles to get the new magazine” (probably to Brownwood) and read it straight away. (AMtF 1.180-1, 205; CL2.220-1, 223)

The last story that would appear in Weird Tales before Howard probably composed “Arkham” was “The Strange High House in the Mist” (WT Oct 1931), where the eponymous house was located on a cliff such that “only the western side, inland and toward Arkham, remained.” Here we also get a brief description of “[…] a lovely vista of Arkham’s white Georgian steeples across leagues of river and meadow. Here he found a shady road to Arkham […]” Howard praised the story claiming:

It’s pure poetry of the highest order, and like all great poetry, stirs dim emotions and slumbering instincts deep in the wells of consciousness. (AMtF 1.217; CL2.256)

So much for the published references to Arkham that Howard might have seen; it is unlikely the man from Cross Plains had ever run across “Howard West—Reanimator,” unless Lovecraft had lent him a copy, and if Lovecraft did there is no mention of it. Of course, by 1931 the Texan was on the “circulation list” for drafts of Lovecraft’s stories, which included the then-unpublished novella At the Mountains of Madness (AMtF 1.231; CL2.273, 274), concerning an antarctic expedition from Miskatonic University, sailing out aboard the Arkham.

There is a possibility that Howard may have read “The Port” (“Ten miles from Arkham I had struck the trail”) one of Lovecraft’s sonnets in the Fungi from Yuggoth cycle. Lovecraft had sent along at least some of the poems; probably the typescript, but possibly a collection of excerpts from those that had been published at this point. Howard does not specifically mention “The Port” among his favorites, but it would remain a potential influence. (AMtF 1.32; CL2.61)

Slight though it is, this was likely all that Howard knew of Arkham—the rest being not published or available to him—and it is not so hard to trace some of the imagery in his poem, and at a time when Howard was already experimenting with a “Lovecraftian” style, such as expressed in “The Black Stone” (WT Nov 1931) Lovecraft himself was enthusiastic in the poem’s reception:

Your “Arkham” stanza is splendid, and I feel honoured that my imaginary city of brooding horror should have evoked such an image. Glad Wright took it, and hope you’ll have more verse for him before long. (AMtF 1.246)

Works Cited

AMtF   A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols., Hippocampus Press)

CL       The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda, Robert E. Howard Foundation)

SL        Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols., Arkham House)