An e-zine dedicated to conversation focused on the life, works, and vision of Robert E. Howard

By Jeffrey D. Elmquist

A Member Journal of the Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association

© 2004 Jeffrey D. Elmquist

Volume 3 - Number 1

Summer Solstice - 2004

Comments on Rusty Burke's

"Without Effort On My Part"

in The Iron Harp, March 2001

© 2004 Jeffrey D. Elmquist

(A revision of an article published earlier in Exedrae  Vol.1 No. 1)

For years now I have been fascinated by Rusty Burke's article which revealed a truer picture of Howard's "effortless" creation of the characters and stories of Conan and Kull. As he points out in the introduction, like most Howard enthusiasts, I too was familiar with REH's letter to Clark Ashton Smith. I had always conjured up a mental image of Howard typing furiously, pounding out the Conan and Kull stories, while their ghosts hovered in the background, dictating the chronicles of their lives. A sort of "divine inspiration" giving birth to terrific tales, which REH simply recorded on paper.

I agree with Mr. Burke's conclusion. Clearly, the creation of Conan and Kull, as well as the composition of their tales, was not as effortless as Howard would have had Smith and Lovecraft believe. The question of why REH exaggerated this effortlessness logically follows on the heels of Burke's conclusion; a question that Mr. Burke has left open. While I have posed possible answers to this question in the past, I have never been satisfied with them. 

After further reflection and analysis of REH's statements, I have decided that my previous theories were totally off the mark.  Howard's "without effort on my part" statements have absolutely nothing to do with any state of depression, manic or otherwise; and little if anything to do with attempts to endear himself in the eyes of his fellow writers.  In fact, I now believe just the opposite is true, especially in the case of his comments to H. P. Lovecraft.  Essential to this reexamination is a close look at the context in which each of Howard's "without effort" statements were made.  Let us look at each one in turn.

Howard's first "without effort" statement was made in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith:

I believe Lovecraft has mentioned William Lumley to me in his letters.  Lumley must be a remarkable interesting man.  I'm rather of the opinion myself that wide-spread myths and legends are based on some fact, though the fact may be distorted out of all recognition in the telling.  While I don't go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present -- or even the future -- work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen -- or rather, off my typewriter -- almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn't do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters. But the time will come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of him at all. That has happened in the past with nearly all my rather numerous characters; suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character. [REH to Clark Ashton Smith, postmarked 14 December 1933, Selected Letters 1931-1936, p. 59]

This letter to Clark Ashton Smith was apparently made in response to statements that CAS made about the author William Lumley.  Unfortunately Smith's letter is no longer extant, so we have to read between the lines of Howard's letter to flesh out the context.  It would seem that the discussion between the two writers centered on Lumley's theories of what Howard called "widespread myths and legends" and seemingly on the possibility of supernatural inspiration of such legends. 

Given that context, it seems to me that Howard's "without effort" statements are not given as an explanation of his writing process, but rather as support for the possibility that "unrecognized forces ... work through the thoughts and actions of living men".  Apparently Howard was agreeing, at least in part, with the comments made by William Lumley which had been passed on to Howard via Clark Ashton Smith, using his own experience of writing Conan tales as an example.  As Rusty Burke has pointed out, REH certainly did write the first Conan tales in a frenzy of inspiration.  I believe this frenzy was embellished a bit by Howard to the point of effortless creation in order to support the possibility of the supernatural inspiration of stories and legends.  I hesitate to say that Howard "lied", but it certainly seems that he exaggerated the ease with which the Conan tales were written in order to make a point in his conversation with Smith.

Howard's second "without effort" statement was made in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft in May 1934:

Thanks for the kind things you said about the Kull stories, but I doubt if I'll ever be able to write another. The three stories I wrote about that character seemed almost to write themselves, without any planning on my part; there was no conscious effort on my part to work them up. They simply grew up, unsummoned, full grown in my mind and flowed out on paper from my finger tips. To sit down and consciously try to write another story on that order would be to produce something the artificiality of which would be apparent.

Apparently Howard wrote this portion of his letter to HPL in response to compliments that Lovecraft extended to REH on his Kull tales.  In that context, it seems to me that Howard's "without effort" response is simply an attempt to deflect (or deflate) the praise that HPL had showered on him.  By saying the tales "grew up, unsommoned, full grown" in his mind REH essentially shrugged off any personal responsibility for the greatness of these tales by saying that they basically wrote themselves.  Far from trying to endear himself in Lovecraft's eyes, it would seem that Howard was trying to humble himself; a fact made all the more clear by the final statement that were he to try to write another similar story he would not be able to do it.

In conclusion, it would seem that Howard's use of the "without effort" statements varied from one context to another.  The first use being an embellishment to further his conversation with a writer (specifically Clark Ashton Smith) who Howard greatly admired.  The second use being an attempt to deflate/deflect the praise heaped upon him by another writer who he greatly admired (specifically H. P. Lovecraft).  From a biographical point of view this reveals some very interesting sides of Robert E. Howard.  It would seem that Howard was quite willing to stretch the truth in order to make a point and further conversation with his correspondents (perhaps not a new revelation).  And more interestingly that Howard, perhaps out of true humility, southern gentlemanliness, or chivalry, went to great lengths to soften the praise heaped upon him by others.  To me this seems rather contrary to the popular image of the man who created Conan the Barbarian, who barbarically wrests the crown of Aquilonia, and King Kull who pompously rules by his axe.

Robert E. Howard Criticism
A Bibliography of Printed Sources

© 2004 Jeffrey D. Elmquist

What follows is an attempt to collect in bibliographic form a complete list of all scholarly articles of REH literary criticism.  The list is limited to those articles that have been published in print sources which were made available to the general public; such as books, journals, fanzines, etc.  Book reviews, online articles, pseudo-histories (i.e. speculative histories of Howard's fictional worlds/empires), and items published by private presses or associations, have not been included.

I am certain that there are articles that I have unintentionally omitted as there are many sources that are simply not available to me.  I would greatly appreciate the assistance of REH fandom in making this list as accurate and complete as possible.  If you know of articles that should be included please email me with complete bibliographical information, as it is my intention to update this list periodically as new articles are written or discovered.

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  1. BOC - The Blade of Conan

  2. LSF - REH: Lone Star Fictioneer

  3. SOC - The Spell of Conan

  4. TBT - The Barbaric Triumph

  5. TDB - The Dark Barbarian

  6. TDM - The Dark Man

  7. TGR - REH: Two-Gun Raconteur

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