Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Retirement of Robert E. Howard

“I’ve been trying to pound out another yarn.”

“Another Conan story?”

“Yeah, but this may be my last one. I’m getting a little tired of Conan.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “This country needs to be written about. There are all kinds of stories around here.”

_Attributed to REH by Novalyne Price in her memoir 'One Who Walked Alone'

In a comment to one of my posts, Alex asked what I thought Robert E. Howard might have written had he lived past the age of 30. It is something that I, and many fans of REH have speculated on. As the quote given above shows, Howard seemed to be moving away from the weird tales of sword & sorcery he had written for so many years. Other comments in REH’s letters indicate that Western fiction might have been the direction in which Howard was headed. However he also mentioned in one letter that he wouldn't mind writing another story for Weird Tales if they would just pay him in something resembling a timely fashion.
A couple of other things to keep in mind are that Howard was a professional pulp writer who would try pretty much any genre at least once, just to see if he could make it pay, and that Howard sold more boxing and humorous western style stories than he did tales of Conan, Solomon Kane, etc. There were doubtless great fans of Robert E. Howard in the 1930s that only knew him through his boxing stories. I guess what I’m trying to point out is that we, today, think of Howard as the creator of Conan and the genre of sword & sorcery. But that was far from all the man could and did write.
Okay, so let’s say that Howard didn’t die in 1936. We won’t bother speculating on why. Let’s just say that it happened. The pulp magazine markets were shrinking as World War II approached. Even longtime pulp writers like Lester Dent (Doc Savage) who had what amounted to a regular gig, saw the size of the stories (and the size of the paychecks) getting smaller. After the war, many pulps (including Doc) became literally smaller, changing to a digest format. The main point is, the pulp magazines, as REH knew them, were dying. He saw the beginnings of that before his own death in 1936. To a large degree, pulp style heroes, as Alex pointed out, made the leap to the colorful pages of Comic Books. (Only a very few years after Howard died.) Quite a few pulp writers also wrote for the comics including Manly Wade Wellman, Otto Binder, and Gardner Fox. Howard might have had a word or two for Fox who created a character called Crom the Barbarian for comic books, come to think of it.
So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Howard could have written for the comic book industry. Howard had been tied to his hometown of Cross Plains Texas, as he was the primary caregiver to his ailing mother. But after his mother’s death, Howard would have been more free to travel and thus could have done as other pulp writers did and moved East to where the work was. He might have done as Midwesterner Dent managed to do, establish himself with the New York publishers and then move away from the city and work wherever he wanted to. Being in New York would have put him in proximity to the comic book companies when Superman changed the world in 1938.
However, had Howard truly been bent on becoming a writer of Westerns, he might have followed other writers like Max Brand and Louis L’Amour into western novels and that could have carried him through the war years. (Though truthfully, I can’t see Howard failing to enlist to fight Hitler, even in his mid thirties. He seemed like that kind of guy.)
But now we get to the post WWII paperback boom. The land of Mickey Spillane (who also wrote for comic books). This is where Howard’s versatility as a writer would really count. As paperbacks began to sell in amazing quantities there were demands for all genres, almost like a mini pulp rebirth. Howard could have written not only Westerns, but obviously historical fiction and of course, sword & sorcery. Keep in mind; the surviving Howard would have only been 44 years old when the first Gnome Conan book was published. So in our altered timeline, if someone had taken an interest in reprinting the adventures of the mighty Cimmerian, they would have had to approach Robert E. Howard.
Let’s think about that for a moment. No L. Sprague de Camp. No Lin Carter. Robert E. Howard in charge of his own literary properties. Of course that could also mean there would be no Lancer paperback deal and no Frazetta covers, but given the Edgar Rice Burroughs generated fantasy boom of the late 1960s, (and the Tolkien generated fantasy boom a little later) most of the things that happened could still have conceivably happened. Different publishers perhaps, but similar events.
In our timeline the Gnome reprints of Conan proved popular enough that Gnome hired L. Sprague de Camp to rewrite four of Howard’s historical novellas into Conan stories. In the altered timeline, would they have approached Robert E. Howard for new Conan material? And would he have written it? Howard often said that he eventually lost touch with his various characters. As if they had been standing at his shoulder, telling him their stories and then suddenly walked away. I wonder if a more mature writer could have re-conjured the spirits of Conan or Solomon Kane. Perhaps he would have come up with a new sword & sorcery hero. Or maybe he would have done his own ‘cannibalizing’ of his non-Conan fiction. He was no stranger to that sort of rewrite.
In 1969 Marvel Comics writer Roy Thomas would have had to approach a 63 year old Robert E. Howard about the rights to a Conan comic book. I suspect Two-Gun Bob would have liked that idea.
Bob would have been in his early seventies when Hollywood came calling for Conan. Some movie money for his retirement years. You know, that’s a nice daydream. I think I’ll stop right there.


Anonymous said...

Kind of hard to see REH writing old school four color superhero comics. Bet he would and could have written humorous comics, though. Imagine Breck Elkins given the full Lil Abner treatment by Frank Frazetta.

I always imagined a surviving REH going on to write hard-edged westerns for Gold Medal in the early fifties, then catching historical fiction's wave of popularity in that decade and producing a vivid chain of swashbuckling historicals. Maybe a series about a crusader that would have had appeal to Hollywood and engendered a couple wide-screen Technicolor epics starring young Jack Palance.
Just dreaming a little.

John Hocking

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Sounds good to me, John. I was talking about this with friends at dinner last night and one thought that had Howard been able to go East for a while he might have picked up enough magazine work to carry him through to the paperback boom just by being closer to the magazine offices. A lot of writers got work because they were dependable and local. If you're going to press in three days and you need a story quick, you don't give it to the guy in Texas. Another noted that he might have ended up writing for early TV when westerns were so popular. Interesting ideas.