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 © 2002 - Patrice Louinet
This is certainly not the zine I had in mind for this fifth offering of “Dwelling in Dark Valley.” I had intended presenting a rather more substantial essay on some of the very interesting issues connected to Howard’s “semi-autobiographical” novel Post Oaks and Sand Roughs.What you will find below is an analysis of 3 pages of the book…
By way of apology: “I know that for months I have been trying to write my essay on Howard’s Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, completely unable to find the necessary time: the man Rusty had seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of essays and editorial annotations flowed off my pen – or rather off my computer – with quite an amount of effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather editing. For weeks I did nothing but edit the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-criticism. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I wasn’t allowed to do it. Then, suddenly, I found myself out of contact with Rusty, as if the tall man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me free to write other things ...”
“TIME OUT OF JOINT” - Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, pages 128-130.
In late 1928, Howard completed a novel patterned after Jack London’s Martin Eden; not an autobiography, but a book in which names and places are slightly distorted from reality. The temptation is great to see in “Steve Costigan”, the book’s protagonist, an alias to Robert E. Howard. In many instances, indeed, events in the novel echo episodes of Howard’s life. It is one thing to see parrallels, it is another to consider the book as an autobiography in the strict sense of the word. Certainly the coinage “semi-autobiographical novel” is a contradiction in terms. Here follow some observations on a few selected pages from Howard’s book, which deal with one of the key-periods in Howard’s life, when he set out to become a professional writer.
Chapter 12 of Post Oaks and Sand Roughs opens with: “Steve came back to Redwood with a sigh.” (p. 128; all quotations are taken from the Donald M. Grant edition, 1989.)
Graduating in early August, Howard completed “two short stories, ‘The Dream Serpent’ [“The Dream-Snake”] and ‘Ocean Doom’ [“Sea-Curse”], which he sent to Bizarre Stories [Weird Tales] with a number of rhymes.” These two stories marked Howard’s return to writing fiction after a year of inactivity. Novalyne Price Ellis, in One Who Walked Alone , wrote that: “Clyde Smith told me that, when Bob finished school and decided to write full-time, he asked his parents to give him a year. If at the end of that year; he had not sold anything, he would give up his dream of being a writer.” These two stories were thus special. More than the possibility of obtaining some cash, they would be indicators of where Howard’s future would reside: in fiction, as Howard hoped, elsewhere as his father seems to have wished, according to several interviews.
Later that month, Howard had taken a vacation, spending several days in San Antonio with his friend Truett Vinson, which he commented in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith: “Truett and I took our little jaunt to San Antonio where we spent a delightful week and managed to get by without reaching the point where each waited for the other to go to sleep first – in the interests of safety. I’m back at Cross Plains, not working much just now, but will start to work soon. I still hate the damned place but sometimes I almost enjoy being here.”
In early September 1927, p. 128 of the book:
He at last sent “The Phantom Empire” to Bizarre Stories, and a short time after sending if off, received a letter from the editor, accepting “The Dream Serpent”, $20.00; “Ocean Doom”, $17.00; and the following rhymes: “Knossus” [“Crete”], $4.00; “The Moor Terror” [“The Moor Ghost”], $4.00; “The Horsemen of Babel” [“The Riders of Babylon”], $5.50; and “Strange Islands” [“Easter Island”], a sonnet – all payable on publication.
According to Post Oaks, thus, Howard had received one letter from Farnsworth Wright accepting two stories and four poems. However, in the same letter to Clyde Smith we mentioned above, Howard concluded with “I have sold five poems and a short story since seeing you last.” One poem is missing from Post Oaks and evidently “The Dream Snake” and “Sea Curse” were accepted - and probably sent - separately, not jointly. It is difficult to ascertain which story was the one alluded to in the letter: in two separate listings of his sales, Howard listed his stories in the order of their acceptance; in both instances “The Dream Snake” is followed by “Sea Curse.” However, when Howard sold “The Shadow Kingdom” a few weeks afterwards, he indicated that the story he has sold “before this this was purely a study in psychology of dreams”, hence “The Dream Snake.”
He sold two more rhymes to Bizarre Stories: “The Portals of Nineveh” [“The Gates of Nineveh”] and “The Lute of the King,” [“The Harp of Alfred”] and still he heard nothing from “The Phantom Empire.”
Once again there was some condensation of events at work here, since another contemporary letter to Clyde Smith makes it clear that the poems were sold separately: “I received a letter from Farnsworth, offering me $4.00 for the dramatic and movie rights of ‘The Gates of Nineveh’.” It is quite possible that “The Harp of Alfred” is the “missing” fifth rhyme above.
Then a letter came, offering $100.00 for “The Phantom Empire.”
This all-important sale was commented in a letter to Clyde Smith: “Since writing you that other letter I’ve sold another mss. I got a hundred dollars for it; that is, I am to get it on publication. I don't know when it will be published or whether you’ll like it or not. I enjoyed writing it more than any piece of prose I ever wrote. The subject of psychology is the one I am mainly interested in these days. The story I sold before this was purely a study in psychology of dreams and this mss. deals largely in primitive psychology. I don ’ t know whether they’ll publish it as a serial or as a ‘complete novel’.”
In that single page of Post Oaks and Sand Roughs , Howard had sold 3 stories and 6 poems. In real time, these events had happened probably within a month, six or seven weeks at most. In the novel as in real life, the month of September 1927 appears to have been an exceptional one for Howard, not for the money (since Weird Tales paid at time of publication), but for the hopes of a literary career it brought to the Texan.
To think that a single month sufficed to convince Howard’s parents of their son’s future as a writer seems to be stretching things a bit too far, still this is recounted in Post Oaks:
“You’re doing great,” said his father. “Keep right on.”
“Yes,” said his mother, “it looks as if you’ve finally landed in the game right.”
This dialogue smacks of the apocryphal. Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is indeed one very strange “autobiographical” novel, in which Bob Howard’s inseparable companion - his dog Patches - is never alluded to, in which Mr. and Mrs. Howard are almost entirely absent and only have one and two lines of dialogue, respectively, in the whole book. It is also probably not a coincidence to see that Dr. Howard’s only words are ones of encouragement to his son, whereas he was probably none too happy with Robert’s decision to become a writer and less than likely to utter such words; the more so a mere month after Howard’s first serious attempts at becoming a professional writer.
Still, page 129 of the novel, Costigan echoes his parents’ conclusions as to his having “landed in the game right”:
Steve thought so himself, especially when his stories and rhymes began to come out in Bizarre Stories.
If the bottom of page 128 was doubtful, with page 129, we are definitely leaving the domain of autobiography: Howard first rhyme in Weird Tales after the sale of “The Shadow Kingdom” was “The Riders of Babylon”, published in the January 1928 issue, on sale December 1, 1927. His first story was “The Dream Snake,” the following month. In the transition from page 128 to 129, several months of Howard’s life have disappeared.
He felt so exalted that he ceased to send material to that magazine and tried to sell things to others. His failure infuriated, but did not discourage him.
Here again, the chronology is seriously distorted: Howard’s first submission to another market than Weird Tales was in February 1928, months after the sale of “The Shadow Kingdom,” as will be shown shortly.
He returned to Bizarre Stories long enough to sell them a sonnet, “Forbidden Magic,” and a short sequel to “The Phantom Empire,” “Mirrors” [“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”].
Here we are back in 1927! “Tuzun Thune” was very probably written upon news of the sale of “The Shadow Kingdom,” that is to say, either in September of October 1927.
Then, to his utter amazement, they rejected a short story which he had considered a cinch sale.
If we are to believe the February 1929 letter, this is either “Sanctuary of the Sun” or “The Valley of the Golden Web”, both mentioned as being written in late 1927, and both rejected by Weird Tales.
Angered, he wrote a long story, “The Black God” [“Red Shadows”], then on the last moment, sent it to The Galleon Magazine [Argosy]. It was returned with a long personal letter.
Costigan’s “anger” in Post Oaks can only have been something of a very, very slow burn: “Red Shadows” was rejected by Argosy on February 20, 1928, with the editor apologizing for the fact that the tale had been on his desk for the past two weeks (letter reproduced in Post Oaks, pp. 169-171). This indicates that “Red Shadows” was written in late January 1928, perhaps even early February, but certainly not in the Fall of 1927.
He was almost as jubilant as if he had sold the story, and sent it Bizarre Stories, which accepted it at $80.00 and promised him the cover design and feature position for the tale.
We have - once again - jumped up a whole month. In late March 1928, Howard wrote to Smith: “The Weird Tales took that mss. the Argosy editor commented upon, offering me $80. The Weird Tales editor took it in its original form, for I didn’t change it any, in spite of the defects pointed out by the Argosy editor, and says that he thinks he’ll give me front page and cover illustration.”
And his stories came out with pleasing regularity. “The Dream Serpent” was followed by “Ocean Doom” and “Voodoo Magic” [“The Hyena”] which he had sold four years before; several rhymes were also published: “The Chant of the Bats,” [“The Songs of the Bats”] “The Ride of Fiume,” [“The Ride of Falume”] “The Horsemen of Babel,” “Memories,” [“Remembrance”] and “The Portals of Nineveh.”
He was no longer worrying about a job. He had money and was almost sure of increasing his till by sales to other magazines.
In his listing of sales and comment about his income Howard was clearly twisting facts: “The Songs of the Bats” had appeared in the July 1927 issue of Weird Tales, published June 1, and “The Ride of Falume” in the October 1927 one, published September 1, months before what seems to be implied in the novel. As to the income, the least we can say is that Costigan could apparently go by with next to no money: the total for the poems and stories mentioned above, representing the entirety of Howard’s professional income between June 1927 and June 1928, is $84, thus averaging $7 a month. As to sales, Howard didn’t place any other tale than the ones we have mentioned, three stories in a whole year. He wouldn’t sell anything until October 1928.
He followed the suggestions of The Galleon’s editor faithfully, deluged their offices with stories and rhymes.
With this sentence, actual events seem to match reality once again. The stories Howard sent to Argosy from March 1928 onward were “Skulls in the Stars,” “Footprints of Terror,” “Spanish Gold on Devil Horse,” and “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom,” all rejected.
* * *
What the analysis of these three pages of Post Oaks tells us is that we should not accept the “facts” in the novel at face-value as Sprague de Camp did when writing his Howard biography, Dark Valley Destiny . Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is not, as de Camp has it, “a factual source of information about Howard’s physical existence from eighteen to twenty-two” nor is it “a study of his emotional life during this period.” (At best, and under skilled hands, it could be possible to use it as the basis for a study of Howard's "emotional life" in late 1928, as he was composing the book, not from 1924 to 1928). This conclusion has not been reached from the study of these three pages alone, of course. For instance, many of the “facts” about the divorce between “Clive” (Clyde Smith) and “Gloria” and her subsequent whereabouts are pure invention.
How to trust this book as autobiography when Howard/Costigan himself warns us, in chapter 5, that: “This was fiction, which after all is the only truth there is to life,” and continues, writing about himself: “He was the scholar, but under his blundering and timid exterior there lurked the hard ancient knowledge of life as gained from the gutters and the slums”?
Whatever qualities and shortcomings one may attribute to Post Oaks should always be done keeping in mind that this book is not a biographical description of Howard’s first years as a writer, but a dramatic rendition of these.