When the article “Conan the Argonaut” appeared in The Cimmerian in 2008, one of the inset quotes, selected to illustrate the mindset that essay argues against, came from Lin Carter in his 1973 book on fantasy literature, Imaginary Worlds, where he writes that Robert E. Howard
secretly yearned to write yarns of magic and mystery in Tibet or stories about keen-eyed British espionage agents in India in the vein of Talbot Mundy, or swashbuckling pirate sagas like Rafael Sabatini, or the kind of romantic adventure fiction Edgar Rice Burroughs and Harold Lamb produced.
But Howard’s rather slapdash, derivative talents could not compete for the major pulps like Argosy or All-Story against writers like these. . . so he settled for Weird Tales.
For Lin Carter to call any other writer “slapdash and derivative” still amazes me. Jeez, talk about projection. . . .
(For those not in the know, the very first review I ever published appeared in the now legendary magazine Nyctalops from Harry Morris — issue 9 released in 1974 — in which I jumped up and down on Imaginary Worlds. Between that book and the horrible Conan stories Carter was writing with L. Sprague de Camp — which I soon took on in “Conan vs. Conantics” — I couldn’t keep my outrage quiet any longer, one thing led to another, and here I am today.)
Imaginary Worlds certainly put into print many of the commonly held ideas about REH of that era, some of which linger today. He wasn’t good enough for a major pulp market like Argosy, so he only tried to write for Weird Tales. He would never have been able to get books published, certainly not fantasy, and never Conan. Plus numerous other goofball ideas, all of which are wrong.
Howard had been trying to crack the pages of Argosy from his first attempts at writing as a teenager, and broke through once in 1929. Not long before his suicide in 1936, an editor who had used Howard’s fiction regularly in Action Stories took the helm of Argosy, and brought Howard with him — the Texan sold several stories in a row, that appeared posthumously, and obviously would have kept going but for his death. He wrote his solo Conan novel not for Weird Tales but for book publication by a British firm.
I’ve heard all the erroneous ideas for decades now, hence the reason for writing “Conan the Argonaut.”
But I admit that I was surprised to get a really out-of-touch-with-the-facts gambit tossed at me during PulpFest this year. Some of us Howard guys were hanging out in the bar, and I was talking about REH moving Conan from Weird Tales over to Argosy, and getting a book out, when one longtime Howard fan (I won’t mention his name, to avoid embarrassment, but he thinks he’s good in debates) said, “But no publishers were releasing books of fantasy at that time.”
I looked at him and said, “Two words: Abraham Merritt. End of that argument.”
A. Merritt saw many fantasy novels, much like what Howard was writing — The Ship of Ishtar, to name one — appear in book form. He was one of the most popular fantastic writers for half a century, at least, ranked alongside Edgar Rice Burroughs, but that regard began to slip by the late 1960s. Some of his titles remain in print, but his once lofty status is gone — he’s just another pulp writer who had his day.
Brian Leno remembered that incredibly brief debate and sent me a note, saying, “Today I received the first hardcover edition of Otis Adelbert Kline’s Call of the Savage and the former owner had a 1933 clipping from Argosy inside, and I found it interesting because of the conversation at PulpFest. ____ was wondering if Howard would have seen book publication because REH’s type of fiction wasn’t being put into hardcover. You blew him out of the water when you mentioned A. Merritt, and of course there were others. Kline, Ray Cummings, George Allan England, and so on.
“Anyway,” Brian continues, “the clipping announces that Kline’s Jan of the Jungle is the 292nd novel from Argosy to appear in book form. A lot of those novels probably were nothing Howard would ever have written, but I’m willing to bet that a good hunk of them were fantasy, science-fiction, whatever. Howard would have been right at home.”
Otis Adelbert Kline was another prolific pulp writer, known for closely imitating Edgar Rice Burroughs — Jan of the Jungle is a Tarzan knockoff, The Swordsman of Mars apes John Carter of Mars. Kline also had a side business as an agent, where he picked up REH as a client by 1934. He sold what became Howard’s first book, A Gent from Bear Creek, in 1936 and it appeared in 1937.
So, for anyone who doesn’t know pulp history or the facts, surrrrrrrre, Howard was a lousy writer who could never have had books come out, who never would have cracked Argosy.
But in Real Life where some of us live, it is 2012 and Howard is now a standard (whereas Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb have faded, and are largely of interest because they influenced Howard). Yeah, Burroughs remains a legend — but Howard is close on his heels.
PulpFest celebrated the hundred year anniversaries of both Tarzan and John Carter — and Year Eighty for Conan. Trailing by twenty years, I do believe Robert E. Howard is catching up.