The Legend of the Trunk – Part 4

[Apologies for the overlap, particularly in this installment, with the earlier series of posts, The Business.]

On May 5, 1949, Friend wrote to Kuykendall to inform him of a deal he was working on, “to do a complete collection of the Conan stories.” He also told the doctor that he hadn’t gotten “around to reading the heretofore unpublished Howard material” he had “on hand,” but he would get to it eventually. By August 10, 1950, he still hadn’t read it:

The other Howard material I wrote you about last year (the heretofore unsold stories) I shall start going over with Gnome Press (who want to publish all Howard material that is not utterly hopeless) and I shall attend to the re-writing of such material as can be whipped into shape for today’s market.

A year later, May 10, 1951, Friend’s search through the “Howard file” yielded a result: “I am selling the first reworked Howard story—The House of Arabu—to Avon Publications for $86.” Word of his discovery spread, as told by L. Sprague de Camp in his introduction to King Conan:

I was talking on the telephone with Donald A. Wollheim, then an editor for Avon Publications. He mentioned a theretofore unpublished story by Robert E. Howard, of which the original title was “The House of Arabu” but which later appeared in Avon Fantasy Reader No. 18 as “The Witch from Hell’s Kitchen.” And I asked Wollheim if any more like it existed.

“Yes,” he said. “I understand Howard’s agent has a whole pile of unpublished Howard manuscripts.”

“What! Who’s his agent?”

“Oscar J. Friend. Do you know him?”

“Sure I know Oscar! Thanks; g’bye!”

I called Jackson Heights and presently heard Oscar’s rich southern accents.

“Why, yes,” he said. “I’ve got a whole carton full of Howard manuscripts. They were left with Otis Kline, who was Howard’s agent, when Howard died, and Otis left ’em to me when he died. Might even be some unpublished Conan stories among ’em. Why, would you like to look through ’em?”

“You bet I would!”

So on November 30th, 1951, I went to Oscar Friend’s apartment, where I met Harold Preece, who had been one of Howard’s few personal acquaintances among professional writers. Preece told me how frustrating Howard had found life in Cross Plains, Texas; how he could never get very far away because he supported his parents by his writing and because his mother had kept him too closely tied to apron-strings. This excessively close relationship proved fatal to Howard, for when in 1936 his sick mother passed into her final coma, and Howard (then thirty) was told by the nurse that she would never speak again, he drove thirty miles out into the desert and blew his brains out. Preece echoed my own thoughts:

“If he’d only gotten away . . . If he’d only gone out with girls the way the other boys did . . .”

Oscar had hauled out the carton of manuscripts—about twenty pounds of them. Most were outside the field of imaginative fiction in which Howard is mainly remembered. There were sports stories, westerns, detective stories, and oriental adventure tales on the Harold Lamb-Talbot Mundy model. There was an unpublished Solomon Kane story [“The Blue Flame of Vengeance”], unlike the others non-fantastic—all swordplay. There was the story which had been announced for the April 1933 Strange Tales, under the title of “The Valley of the Lost,” but which never appeared because of that magazine’s demise. And there were three unpublished Conan stories. These were “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” 3000 words; “The God in the Bowl,” 600 [sic.]; and “The Black Stranger,” 29,000. While there was no exact indication of when these were written, there was, clipped to “The God in the Bowl,” a small rectangle of paper: a sheet from a calendar-pad, dated July 1, 1931, on the back of which was written in longhand:

Wandrei and I have read these tales with keen interest & appreciation. Best wishes for their ultimate publication! Dwyer seems to have enjoyed them greatly, too. The climax of “The God in the Bowl” is splendidly vivid!     HPL

“HPL” was of course Howard Philips Lovecraft, one of the leading American fantasy-writers of that time. Presumably this was one of the first Conan stories written, and Howard had sent it, with one or more others, to Lovecraft for comments.

De Camp’s visit seems to inspired Friend. Just two days later, December 5, 1951, he wrote to Kuykendall:

[L]et me ask you if you know of any Robert E. Howard material or manuscripts or parts of manuscripts, or any unpublished Howard material at all. I am well aware that Mr. Otis Kline got most of Bob’s material from Dr. Howard, but if there’s the least scrap of stuff around Ranger that you know of, please wrap it up and send it to me. I would like, also, to have a copy of the British-published book, A Gent from Bear Creek, if you happen to have one laying around.

Friend repeats his request in an April 7, 1953 letter to Kuykendall:

I would like to know if you know of any Robert Howard manuscripts existing in anybody’s possession at this time. For instance, Otis Kline went carefully through all Howard MSS he could find, and which Dr. Howard sent him in the late 1930s, but do you think you could possibly find any strays anywhere for us? For instance, Robert Howard studied for a time at Howard Payne College there in Texas and is reputed to have left the college some of his manuscripts as a sort of legacy. Do you know, or can you learn if this is true?

Receiving no response, he wrote again on June 24:

You never did answer my letter regarding the possibility of Bob Howard having left any original MSS to his college, or if you know of any unpublished material of his anywhere.

A July 1, 1953 letter has Friend asking Kuykendall if he can “scare up for us a fairly good photo of Bob” for publication in the Gnome Press series, “along with a facsimile of Bob’s signature.” Kuykendall finally responded on July 13, saying that he had “searched through all of the very meager records that Doctor Howard left” and found nothing. He does, however, give friend the following bit of information:

And that seems to have put the issue to rest for Friend. As the years progressed, he continued to let friends and associates paw through the Howard file, telling John D. Clark in a September 22, 1953 letter to “come over to my office to visit, chew the fat, discuss any Howard plans, and look through the Howard material” that he still had. And by September 26, 1956, L. Sprague de Camp was telling friends that “There are no more Howard mss suitable for use in the Conan series.” Of course, de Camp didn’t know about—and Friend had never investigated—that “friend of Robert’s in California.”

[Go to Part 5]