Dwelling in
DARK VALLEY

Number 1       March 2001
Dwelling in Dark Valley, an e-zine conceived and produced by Patrice Louinet
for the Robert E. Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association (REH-EAPA) .
Entire contents 2001 - Patrice Louinet

Short Editorial Note:

Welcome to the first issue of this new zine; I hope you will appreciate the contents and would gladly welcome comments. The focus of the essay is biographical, and is the first in a projected series of three.

To view the titles as designed, you might want to download   the font "Elephant Regular" (click to download) .


A MAN AND HIS DOG
Or, not so trivial facts about Patch and his death.

Robert E. Howard and Patch
photo Roy Barkley

Robert E. Howard had a well-known fondness for animals, and often devoted whole paragraphs of his letters to correspondent Howard Phillips Lovecraft to the whereabouts of his various cats. But of his most loved companion, his dog Patch (or Patches) , he never wrote a single line to anyone. What few details are known about Patch come from a letter written by his father, a short article by a woman who recounted her first encounter of Howard and his dog, and a line or two from Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard's closest friend.

At first glance, the history of Howard and his dog would seem of relatively little interest, even to the Howard scholar. However, this particular element of Howard's life is interesting in more ways than one.

First of all, the (alleged) death of Patch (i.e. early 1930) , has been used by Lyon Sprague de Camp, in Dark Valley Destiny, as the reason behind Howard's move to Brownwood in the second semester of 1929. By "concluding" that Howard could be so hurt by the death of his companion, De Camp was of course paving the way for his theories as to the reasons behind Howard's suicide.

However, the fact remains that Howard himself was remarkably mute about his dog. While it would seem curious that he could write at length of his cats but not of his dog, the thing could be explained away if we take into consideration that the immense majority of the surviving Howard letters were composed after the death of the dog. We are here touching an extremely important characteristics of Howard's life: painful or difficult episodes are never alluded to in the correspondence. Since Howard never gave any indication as to the date of the dog, nor as to the motives behind his move to Brownwood in the latter half of 1929, and his coming back to Cross Plains six months later, the field was left open to various wild conjectures.

In the lines that follow, I propose to offer much more substantial evidence as to the real timeline of Howard & Patch, invalidating De Camp's theories, and to incorporate this new biographical evidence in a larger framework that takes into account Howard's literary output.

In Dark Valley Destiny, Lyon Sprague de Camp commented on Howard's extended stay in Brownwood, during the second semester of 1929: "The occasion for this move was probably the impending death of the dog, Patches. The records of this event are contradictory. In telling of it in a letter to E. Hoffmann Price, Dr. Howard implied that the dog died in 1927, and that at the time of the death Robert stayed in Brownwood for a few days only. On the other hand, Robert's sojourn in Brownwood through the latter half of 1929 is proved by the address he gives in The Junto, from the issue of August 1929 to that of February 1930. The doctor's aging memory was far from infallible about details like dates when he wrote of them a decade or more later." (p. 235)

From this account emerges the picture of a dog that took six months to die and of a Howard that left home for an equal length of time, telephoning home every morning to inquire about the dog, all this just not to be there when the dog would finally pass away. From that, it was easy for de Camp to conclude that "such impending deaths as those of Patches and his mother filled him with revulsion. He could not accept death as an inevitable rounding out of a given span of life." (p. 349)

WHEN DID PATCH DIE ?

"The occasion for [the mid-1929] move was probably the impending death of the dog, Patches … Dr. Howard implied that the dog died in 1927 On the other hand, Robert's sojourn in Brownwood through the latter half of 1929 is proved by the address he gives in The Junto … " (pp. 235-236) .

From the above, two facts and one supposition emerge. The facts: Howard lived in Brownwood during the second half of 1929, and Howard went to Brownwood as the dog was nearing death. De Camp only postulates that the two events were linked. Moreover, he dismisses Howard's father assertion that his son went to Brownwood for a few days only.

Isaac Mordecai Howard's declaration is taken from a passage found in a letter to E. Hoffmann Price, dated June 21, 1944:

"Robert loved animals of all kind. You could not by any amount of persuasion have induced him to shoot a bird or a jackrabbit or any kind of animal. He had a dog, a mixed-breed, half-collie, half-Walker foxhound. His association was so close with this dog until the dog seemed to develop a perfectly human understanding of not only Robert, but Robert's mother and myself. Also, when the dog was 12 years old, he sickened to die. Robert knew his dog was going to die. He packed his grip, opened the gate, walked out, and said 'Mama, I am going.' He went to Brownwood and stayed until his dog died, which was two or three days. But each morning he phoned and asked his mother if Patch (that was the dog's name) was still alive; finally on the third or fourth morning, his mother told him she though the Patch dog would not last longer than 12 o'clock. He always spoke thus: 'Mama, how are you?' When his mother would reply, he would say: 'How is Patch?' After the fourth day when his mother told him the dog was going, he never inquired any more; he knew the dog would soon die. Therefore he never spoke of him again. I had the dog buried in a deep grave in the back lot, then had the lot plowed deeply and then had them take a big harrow and harrow it deeply all over to destroy every trace of the grave, so sensitive was he to the loss of the dog. And only once did he ever allude to the death of his dog again. He said to his mother one day: 'Mother, did you bury Patch under the mesquite tree in the corner of the lot on the east side?' She said yes, and the matter was never mentioned by any of us again.

He was so sensitive to things of a depressing nature that his mother and I never mentioned anything of a depressing nature in his presence. It had been thus with him since childhood. His dog died when he (the dog) was 12 and Robert 24. He raised the dog from the time it was a wee thing, before his eyes were barely open, through the life of the dog. The dog was an inseparable companion to Robert. It was often fed from the table as Robert ate, sitting down by Robert's chair. When Robert helped himself, before eating a bite, he helped Patch to food. " (Letter reproduced in The Howard Collector, Ace Books, 1979, pp. 215-216)

Of the matter that interests us presently (the date of death of Patch) several elements appear in this letter: first of all, Howard very likely stayed a few days in Brownwood while Patch was dying. Surely he would not have asked about Patch every day for six months. Second element, Howard had had his dog since "it was a wee thing, before his eyes were barely open", that is to say, Howard got his dog when it was still a puppy. The third element is quite problematic: if the dog died when Howard was 24, then this was at least after January 22 (or 24) , 1930. By that time, however, Howard had returned from Brownwood to Cross Plains. In late December 1929 or early January 1930, Howard resumed his correspondence with Tevis Clyde Smith, who lived in Brownwood (the intensive correspondence between the two men had of course ceased when Howard moved to Brownwood in the middle of the year.) : "Here I am doing business at the old stand or trying to." There is no possibility this letter could have been written after January 22, since, in that letter, he hopes Smith will be there for his birthday. Whatever our next conclusions, it is now evident that the dog didn't die when Howard was 24, and that the six-months stay in Brownwood had nothing to do with Patch.

However, it is from a fourth element that we will at last be in a position to understand the chronology: Isaac Howard declares the dog died when he was 12. Since Howard had got the dog when it was still a puppy, the logical solution is to determine when exactly Howard got his dog.

De Camp, in Dark Valley Destiny, seems to have been also preoccupied by this problem, so much that he first makes mention of a Mrs. Burns seeing nine-year old Howard and his dog Patch in 1915 (pp. 70-71) , only to inform us three pages later (p. 74) that Howard got Patch as his Christmas present for …;1917!

The 1917 passage reads as follows:

"Patches was a large, short-haired, black-and-white mongrel, half collie and half Walker fox-hound which had been given to Robert for Christmas 1917. 'Patch' was a puppy with his eyes barely open when Robert got him, but under the boy's care the animal throve. Boy and dog became inseparable. When Robert ate, the dog sat beside his chair. When Robert helped himself, before eating a bite, he helped Patch to food." (p. 74)

It does not take an astute reader to realize that the entirety of this paragraph was written using the Isaac Howard letter we quoted above. All of its elements are taken verbatim from it, with one exception: the fact that Howard had got Patch for Christmas 1917. De Camp doesn't give any source that could indicate Howard got the dog as a Christmas present for 1917. For the simple reason that very likely no such source exists. Undoubtedly De Camp invented the fact that Howard got the dog as a Christmas present, only arriving at his December 1917 date by subtracting twelve years from his supposed date of death of Patch, i.e. December 1929 or January 1930. This goes a long way toward assessing the scholarly principles at work during the composition of Dark Valley Destiny.

The other passage (the 1915 one) is much more interesting and is in fact taken from a short text, later published as "Robert E. Howard as a Boy". The author, Mrs. Elsie Burns, probably wrote the piece shortly after Howard's suicide. It begins as follows:

'Tis early one Spring morning, accompanied only by current magazines. We take off across a nearby pasture for a walk, stopping occasionally to pluck an anemone or some other dainty pastel hued blossom which mother nature displays soon after the first robin's return. After a time we find ourself seated upon a rock, lost in musings, with the only disturbance a tinkling cow bell down by a wooded section near the water hole or the twitter of birds as they flit to and fro among the branches of an oak above us. Finally becoming so absorbed in reading we are unaware of any approach until a big black and white dog wearing a collar bounds down from a ledge of rock behind, startling us. The kind look in his eyes assures that he is at least friendly, when almost immediately a call 'Come Patches, come Patches' is heard and looking up in direction of the voice we see a lad of about ten years crossing a fence wearily. Patches, in the meantime, seems to be investigating a small cave under a huge rock. As his master approaches our position he politely announces, 'I'm Robert Howard, I'm sorry if we frightened you. Patches and I are out for our morning stroll. We like to come here where there are big rocks and caves so we can play 'Make believe.' Some day I'm going to be an author and write stories about pirates and maybe cannibals. "Would you like to read them?" Assuring him that we would, he calls to Patches and they are soon out of sight over the crest of the nearby hill, whereupon we resume musing and reading.

Sometime later Robert comes to live next door …

Mrs. Burns was the postmistress of Burkett, where the Howards moved in 1917. As the last sentence of the quoted passage makes it explicit, the Howards only moved there sometime after the Patch episode took place. When we add to that that the dog was certainly not a puppy in the above passage, and that Mrs. Burns describes Howard as "a lad of about ten years", it seems likely the episode took place between 1915 and 1916. (For reasons too complicated too evoke here, the fact that Howard is said, later in the article, to be carving his "favorite brand X- (X three bars) ", would tend to confirm the 1916 date) .

Which leaves us with a likely 1915 or 1916 birth year for Patches, and, consequently, that the dog died in 1927 or 1928, but no later than that. It is impossible for the dog to have died in 1929 or even 1930. And if we now proceed to accept this date of death as the correct one, then a number of things make sense.

1) The 1929 move to Brownwood.

As the above has clearly demonstrated, Bob Howard did not go to Brownwood because of his dog, but he nevertheless stayed in Brownwood for a period of six months. Whatever the reasons behind this move, they were only made possible because the dog was dead: Howard would not have abandoned a dog he was so much attached to for so long a time if he were still alive.

2) Post Oaks and Sand Roughs.

This pseudo-autobiographical novel was written during the second half of 1928. Purportedly covering four years of Howard's life (from 1924 to 1928) , with most of the action taking place in Cross Plains, one can't see why Howard's dog would not be featured or at least mentioned in the novel, unless he was already dead. We are (again) encountering this essential point: painful autobiographical episodes are never alluded to, either in the correspondence, or, logically, in the autobiographical fiction.

Never mentioning Patch in the letters was thus Howard's solution to lessen the pain that was associated with the dog's death: "And only once did he ever allude to the death of his dog again and the matter was never mentioned by any of us again." By negating the dog's existence, which was, after all, what Howard was doing, he was simply suppressing the painful episode from his life and consciousness; but of course, what is suppressed is bound to reappear somewhere, in a disguised form. And since Howard was a writer, it was in his fiction (as opposed to his autobiographical output and letters) , that the dog was to be found, after the death of his real-life counterpart.

Early in 1929, Howard created one of his most successful characters, commercially -speaking: "The Pit of the Serpent" was the first story featuring Steve Costigan the sailor, clearly an idealized image of Howard. In the first story in the series, Costigan is alone, and this is still the case in what was probably the second in the series, "Blue River Blues".

The third was titled "The Bull Dog Breed", and it introduces Mike, Costigan's bulldog. Mike was to become a mainstay of the series. He is Costigan's only real companion, and "I named him Mike after a brother of mine, Iron Mike Costigan." ("The Bull Dog Breed" in Robert E. Howard's Fight Magazine 1, Necronomicon Press, 1990) . It would be difficult to stress more the closeness between Steve and his dog.

Years later, in "Beyond the Black River" (1934) , a similar episode of resurrection would take place, this time with the character of Balthus and his dog Slasher.

Thus, Patch and his death provides us with what seems to be a particularly interesting (if difficult) way of investigating Howard's life: the reemergence of a fictional dog as opposed to the so-called non-existence of the real one invites one to pursue similar researches: notably the facts that Howard's heroes never mention their parents, or even having parents, and that they are exiles; or that, in Howard's more realistic fiction, his characters are always orphans, or have always had a harsh childhood …

Patrice Louinet 2001


















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