The Writing Game

by Glenn Lord

From 1930 through 1936, Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936) had contributions in 48 of the 80 issues of Weird Tales, including serial installments but excluding verse. In the same period he had stories in some 78 other magazines – no serials — excluding verse, as well as non-remunerative work in a fan magazine (The Fantasy Fan) and a semi-pro magazine (Marvel Tales). This averages 18 sales per year, which earned him a fairly decent income during The Depression. This despite low rates – and they really weren’t much lower than they are nowadays – and despite that Weird Tales’ policy of payment on publication was pretty much a joke, they owed Howard something like $1350.00 at the time of his death. This was eventually paid off to his father.

An examination of his sales record prior to 1930, however, will reveal almost the obverse of the above. Howard was 15 (1921) when he entered the “writing game” as he called it. His reasons for taking up writing he summed up thusly:

I took up writing simply because it seemed to promise an easier mode of work, more money, more freedom than any other job I’d tried.

Prior to that time, he had work in a high school newspaper and a poem in his hometown newspaper, but this article will only deal with remunerative publication.

His first professional sale was “Spear and Fang,” sold to Weird Tales for $16.00. “In the Forest of Villefere” appeared in the same year, bringing only $8.00. Thus, sales for his first year as a professional writer earned him exactly $24.00.

The short novelette “Wolfshead” appeared in Weird Tales in 1926, copping the cover illustration. And thereon hangs a tale. The artist, E.M. Stevenson, misplaced the manuscript after doing the painting, and editor Farnsworth Wright wrote Howard asking for a carbon copy. Howard had made no carbon copy of the story, but offered to rewrite it from memory; which he did. As it turned out, the original manuscript turned up, minus the first page, which was taken from the rewrite. For this story he received $50.00, which reflects a “bonus” for the extra work. This was the only remunerative effort in 1926.

“The Lost Race” ($30.00) was the only story published in 1927, but Howard did begin to place some verse: “The Song of Bats” ($3.50) and “The Ride of Flaume” ($4.00).  All these appeared in Weird Tales; a total of $37.50 for the year.

Actually matters were more frustrating than they appear from the above. Howard wrote:

I was eighteen when I wrote “Spear and Fang”, “The Lost Race”, and “The Hyena”; nineteen when I wrote “In the Forest of Villefere” and “Wolfshead”. And after that it was two solid years before I sold another line of fiction. I don’t like to think about those two years.

Weird Tales published four stories in 1928: “Red Shadows” ($80.00), originally titled “Solomon Kane” and the first published story in that series; “Sea Curse” ($20.00), “The Hyena” ($25.00) and “the Dream Snake” ($20.00). And in addition, five poems: “Remembrance” ($3.50), “Easter Island” ($3.50), “The Gates of Nineveh” ($4.00), “The Harp of Alfred” ($4.50) and “The Riders of Babylon” ($5.50). Another poem, “Kid Lavigne is Dead,” appeared in The Ring, but if there was any remuneration for this, there is not record.  The local newspaper, The Cross Plains Review, paid Howard $20.00 for “Drums of the Sunset,” a “tale of the West of twenty years ago,” as it was blurbed. This was published in nine installments, beginning in the latter part of the year; the last installment was presumably published in the first issue of 1929. I say “presumably” because no copy of that issue has ever been located; the newspaper’s own files lack it. To forestall any sharp-eyed reader noting that, in the bibliography, the issue of the Review for the last week of December is un-listed: the paper’s policy was to skip that week’s issue. Total sales for the year: $186.00.

Sales to new markets and increased publication in Weird Tales in 1929 marked the beginnings of arrival as a successful pulp fictioneer. Stories in Weird Tales: “The Shadow Kingdom” ($100.00), “The Mirrors of Tuzan Thune” ($20.00), “Skulls in the Stars” ($30.00), “Rattle of Bones” ($20.00) and the serial “Skull-Face” (300.00); verse in the same magazines: “Crete” ($3.50), “The Moor Ghost” ($4.00), “Forbidden Magic” ($3.50) and “Moon Mockery” ($3.50).

The first of the Sailor Steve Costigan series, “The Pit of the Serpent,” appeared in fiction House’s Fight Stories, bringing $90.00. This series continued to appear semi-regularly in the magazine until its temporary suspension in 1932. The other fiction sales were likewise sports stories. “Crowd-Horror” ($100.00) was published in Argosy-Allstory, a sale that must have been a moral victory for Howard after a frustrating series of rejections from that magazine. And that was to be his last sale to Argosy until shortly before his death in 1936. The other sale was “The Apparition in the Prize Ring” to McFadden’s Ghost Stories for $95.00. This appeared under the pen-name of John Taveral; I suspect the editors of Ghost Stories were responsible for this, for I have a carbon copy of the manuscript, which was told in the third person with Taveral as one of the characters. In the magazine version, the story was told in first person. Despite numerous submissions, that was his only sale to McFadden.

American Poet was a short-lived poetry journal of very limited circulation, published by H. Stuart Morrison of Iselin, New Jersey. Two of Howard’s poems, “A Lady’s Chamber” and “Skulls and Dust,” appeared under the Patrick Ervin by-line. No payment was made by the magazine, but a $3.00 prize was given to the best poem in each issue. “Skulls and Dust” won this prize, which brought Howard’s earnings to 1929 to $772.50, more – by far – than he had earned in the previous four years combined.

Fortunately, except for the time he was attending school in Brownwood and living at a boarding house, Howard lived with his parents; consequently, his expenses were light. He did, however, find it necessary to work from time to time at such jobs as he might find in a small town like Cross Plains: Soda jerking in a local drug store, clerking in both a grocery and dry-goods store, being a public stenographer, writing up oil news for various Texas and Oklahoma newspapers, and working on a survey crew. In the fall of 1926, he attended Howard Payne College, taking a bookkeeping course. He graduated the academy in August of 1927, but there is little evidence that he ever used this course to any extent. Perhaps it was just as well – his handwriting was execrable.

Unfortunately, few records of Howard’s submissions exist, apart from those by Otis Kline, his agent from 1933 onward. Some indications of his many rejections can be gleaned from a perusal of Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, an unpublished autobiographical novel written about 1928. And this only reveals that he made frequent efforts to crash Argosy and Adventure, with no luck on either until he made the one, previously mentioned sale to Argosy in 1929.

There do exist two pages of submissions, circa 1929 – 1931, and they will give the reader some idea as to what magazines and/or publishers he submitted to: True Stories (“The Curse of Greed,” “The Devil in His Brain”); Ghost Stories (“Dermod’s Bane,” “The Shadow of Doom”); Thrills of the Jungle (“Black-Country”) Adventure (“By This Axe I Rule!,” “The Extermination of Yellow Donory”); Argosy (“Blue River Blues,” “The Judgement of the Desert”); Fiction House (“The Trail of the Snake,” “Cultured Cauliflowers”); Liberty (“The Head in the Hollow Stump”) and Romance (“The Isle of Pirates Doom”).

Howard’s first book, A Gent from Bear Creek, appeared the year following his death, but during his lifetime he tried several times to market a book. Three attempts were made in the period under consideration.

R. Fowler Gafford, a man somewhat older than Howard, was during this time a resident of Cross Plains. Gafford, despite a lack of education, had been “bitten by the writing bug.” One of his efforts, West of the Rio Grande, had been rejected by several publishers. Feeling that a lack of education, with resultant grammatical errors, might have been the reason for its rejection, Gafford induced Howard into re-writing the novel … this he id, despite a lack of enthusiasm in the work. The novel was again offered to several publishers with the same results. Howard confided to one of his friends that it wasn’t much of a story; therefore he wasn’t particularly disappointed when it failed to sell. Gafford died in El Paso in 1957; the fate of the novel remains a mystery.

In 1928, Howard submitted a thin sheaf of verse entitled Singers in the Shadows to Boni, who turned it down, saying they were not at the time publishing any verse. Of the 20 poems in the volume, only one has ever been published, and that only recently.

The aforementioned autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, which details, in slightly fictionalized form, Howard’s life from about 1924 until 1928, was submitted to Dodd, Mead & Company – and was rejected. It is not too difficult to see why it was rejected at the time; its chief merit nowadays being that it gives an insight into the life of a pulp writer who still retains some measure of popularity.