The Business, Part 5: 1954-55

[Part 4 is here]

As 1954 began, Oscar Friend was thinking of ways to continue the Conan series. He wrote to P. M. Kukendall on February 19, 1954 and explained his plan:

While there are still two more Conan books to be published by Gnome Press, the end of the Howard material is in sight. However, we think the Conan property too valuable to let die, and we have conferred with the book publisher and have found him keenly desirous of carrying on the series. Therefore, we have been looking around for a suitable author-fan of Bob Howard’s capable of carrying on. We have two or three in mind, but before we can approach any of them with a concrete proposition, we must have an understanding with you as administrator of the Howard Estate.

Friend goes on to describe various scenarios, what the new author will be responsible for, what kind of byline to append to the new stories, etc. He closes by saying that “There is no great hurry about this,” but thinks “the idea a very good one, but if you don’t like it, just say so, and we’ll drop the matter.”

Kuykendall responded on March 8: “We are perfectly agreeable to your working out a by-line deal for the continuation of the Howard publication series.” But there were other things on his mind, too, like getting rid of the whole thing:

We would prefer selling all rights, and releasing the entire thing to you or to a purchaser whom you think might be interested. We would consider a sale price of three thousand dollars for all rights, and a complete release of any claim to future royalties that might accrue.

The above letter, and the two that follow, appear in The Collected Letters of Doctor Isaac M. Howard, and show Friend explaining what he thinks the ups and downs of such a sale would entail, as well as the amount of cash that the property might be expected to generate. Friend’s March 14 letter has a counter-offer of $1,250. This is rejected by Kuykendall on March 23.

Meanwhile, over at Gnome Press, series editor John D. Clark had stepped aside—under what circumstances is not known—and his place filled by L. Sprague de Camp. His first Gnome Press book was 1954’s Conan the Barbarian. The only other Howard for 1954 was a reprint of “The Dark Man” in the September Weird Tales.

After thinking about the Kuykendalls’ offer all year, Oscar Friend made another counter-offer on December 8, 1954. He upped his bid to $2,000, to be paid in $500 quarterly installments dependent on sales of the property. If he couldn’t make his payment, the property would revert back to Kuykendall. This letter went unanswered, causing Friend to send a short note to Kuykendall on January 26, 1955: “It is important that you answer my letter of Dec. 8, or notify me at once that you have failed to receive same, asking for a carbon copy.”

On January 26, 1955, the Kuykendalls’ attorney responded, saying that they would accept the proposed deal that continued the Conan series, but no mention is made of Friend’s $2,000 offer on the entire Howard property. The letter concludes by saying that Doctor Kuykendall has been ill and that Friend should direct his correspondence to the attorney.

Friend wrote back on February 18: “I will send you a draft of the contract as soon as I have prepared one. The hiatus at the present moment is that the author I thought I had lined up has decided against doing the work, and I have to line up another.” Who that author was is not mentioned.

One writer who was busy with Conan was L. Sprague de Camp. After borrowing a few non-Conan stories from the Kline files, he set about converting them into Hyborian Age tales. And while Oscar Friend was wrestling with contract details for the continuation of the Conan series, de Camp was actually doing it. In a June 9, 1955 letter to Kuykendall, Friend sends “a small lump of sugar” for “‘Hawks Over Shem,’ a re-write of an old R. L. [sic.] Howard dud.” The story appeared in the October 1955 issue of Fantastic Universe. This yarn was originally an REH historical entitled “Hawks Over Egypt.” The rewrite also appeared in that year’s Tales of Conan (the proper story with the proper title didn’t appear in print until 1979).

By November 14, 1955, Friend, de Camp, and Gnome Press had at least agreed on what to do with the conversion of Howard’s non-Conan stories into Conan yarns. On that day, Friend wrote to Kuykendall, including new contracts with Gnome Press and a “special” contract for de Camp for the “ghost writing of Robert Howard stories.” Friend advises Kukendall to go over the contracts and, “if agreeable,” sign and return them, but also says, “If you feel that de Camp is crowding on his percentages, etc., delete and initial any such changes you may make.” Friend feels the terms of the de Camp contract aren’t “too onerous.”

Kuykendall’s attorney responded on November 19:

Frankly we know nothing about the intricate procedure involved but assume that you will protect Dr. Kuykendall as far as possible and get for him the best deal under all of the circumstances. He would like to keep the matter on a royalty basis, but will leave the details to you. If you will add or change the contract to your satisfaction as agent for the estate of Robert Howard and its successors, Dr. Kuykendall will go along in keeping with your judgment.

And there the deal stood.

The December 1955 issue of Fantastic Universe has the second of de Camp’s rewrites: “Conan, Man of Destiny.” Originally an historical entitled “The Road of the Eagles,” for its book publication in that year’s Tales of Conan de Camp used the original Howard title (the proper story with the proper title didn’t appear in print until 2005). De Camp, it seemed, was going to be the Conan continuer, whether Friend admitted it or not.

In his new role as “posthumous collaborator,” de Camp was a mixed bag. Back in the September 1952 Space Science Fiction, de Camp had outlined his contribution to the recently found Conan tale, “The God in the Bowl”:

In reworking this tale I have retained the original storyline without change. My alterations comprise: (1) Changing the names of characters where these names too closely resembles each other or those of other characters in the Conan series. (Howard was incorrigibly careless in such matters.) (2) Condensing the dialogue which, especially in the early part of the story, got out of hand. (3) Correcting many minor infelicities and modifying the style, which in places approached that of a contemporary whodunnit, for greater consistency with the other Conan stories.

His editorial policy was likely the same for his reworking of the other two Conan tales found in the Kline files: “The Black Stranger” and “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” In his “Ghostly Note” (Tales of Conan, 1955), de Camp explains his approach to the non-Conan stories:

These four stories are based upon unpublished manuscripts by Robert E. Howard, which I obtained from the same source as the three posthumously published Conan stories that have appeared in the Gnome Press’s series of Hyborian Age books. (See my introduction to King Conan.) In their original form, the stories in the present book were tales of oriental adventure with medieval and modern settings. Converting them into Conan stories involved changing names, removing anachronisms, and putting in a supernatural element, but the stories are still about four-fifths Howard. The resulting pastiches are meant to be as close as possible to what Howard would have written had he, instead of blowing his silly head off, undertaken to rewrite these stories in this form. His literary habits being what they were, he might very well have done this had he lived.

De Camp’s “silly head” comment notwithstanding, he appears to have truly appreciated Howard’s tales of Conan, if not necessarily the author that created them. And while he enjoyed the stories, he didn’t see them as much more than “pure entertainment,” adding that

These stories prove a theory expounded by Bernard De Voto, that the absolute essential for fiction-writing is neither keen observation, warm human sympathy, painstaking research, nor technical writing-skill, useful though all these undoubtedly be. It is instead the ability to visualize one’s settings, characters, and events so vividly and intensely that the reader is forced to share in this act of imagination whether he wishes to or not. This quality Howard had, so that, however implausible his Hyborian Age may seem when coldly analyzed, it comes to gorgeous and furious life on his pages.

So, if you read for fun and excitement (and why shouldn’t you?) turn to these stories and plunge in. As you can see, I am not utterly uncritical in my appreciation of Howard’s stories. But, even though I can point out a fault here and there, I have read all of the damned things at least four times! And that’s what counts. (King Conan)

The appearance of “new” Howard stories had a different effect on editor Lester Del Rey. In his magazines that carried these tales, he said that Howard was one of the world’s “greatest fantasy adventure writers” (Space Science Fiction, Sept. 1952), and Del Rey was especially pleased that these new yarns were Conan stories:

We’ve always been fond of Conan, and when Howard died over fifteen years ago, our lives were just a bit poorer for it. It was quite an event to discover that a full novelette by him had never been published, and we finally got it. It isn’t the sort of a tale you’ll usually find in this magazine—because nobody else can quite recapture the pre-mythical past. (Fantasy Magazine, Feb. 1953)

In that same editorial, De Rey said that “nobody else can write quite like Robert E. Howard.” These comments about the author of the Conan series differ starkly from de Camp’s “silly head” remark above and this, from his King Conan introduction:

Howard was a psychological case-study. In Conan he created a wishful idealization of himself; Conan even looked like his creator on a slightly larger scale. Howard suffered from delusions of persecution, and his end constituted a classic case of Oedipus complex.

While de Camp was becoming the voice on all things Conan (and at the time, that meant all things Howard), the stage was being set for a new voice to emerge: Glenn Lord had returned from the Korean War.

[Part 6 is here.]