Volume 1, Number 2, September 2001

Produced by Rusty Burke for the Robert-E-Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association. A Celtic Weirdness Production.

© 2001 by Rusty Burke. All rights reserved.

   I was working on a couple of other articles for this zine, but the events of September 11, 2001, left me with neither the energy nor the will to complete them.  Perhaps next time.

   I join with all Americans and others of good will in mourning the thousands of lives lost and shattered by the actions of persons whose hearts have room for nothing but hate.

"But one suggested the other"

The Influence of H.P. Lovecraft on Robert E. Howard's Horror Fiction

"I will not say that the characters on the Black Stone were similar to those on that colossal rock in the Yucatan; but one suggested the other."

÷ Robert E. Howard, "The Black Stone"

Robert E. Howard is best known for his stories of fantastic adventure featuring barbarian heroes, but he was also a notable contributor to the literature of horror. Stephen King, for instance, who knows a horror story when he sees it, called Howard's "Pigeons From Hell" "one of the finest horror stories of our century" [1]. Of the 49 Howard stories published in Weird Tales between 1925 and his death in 1936, at least 15 might be considered "horror," and of course, horror elements played a big part in making Howard's fantastic adventure stories of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and others so memorable.

Howard's first horror stories appeared very early in his career. The second and third stories he submitted to Weird Tales, in fact, were tales of a werewolf. In these early tales, Howard demonstrated a willingness to depart from tradition which would mark most of his work in the genre. Traditionally, for instance, men become werewolves when they are infected by the bite of a werewolf: they are men who may take on the appearance of wolves. Howard's werewolves are wolves possessed by ancient demons, which may take on the semblance of men. If they are slain while in their man-form, the demon is free to haunt the slayer forever. This is the unhappy fate of de Montour in "Wolfshead."

It was only after the beginning of his correspondence with the great weird fictionist H.P. Lovecraft, though, that Howard produced his most notable work in the horror genre. That he had been a fan of Lovecraft (who was even then considered the top contributor to Weird Tales, and the greatest writer of horror tales since Poe) for some time is evidenced by his May 1928 letter to the editor of Weird Tales, in praise of "The Call of Cthulhu" [2], but it was not until the summer of 1930 that the two men began corresponding. Howard, by then himself a notable contributor to Weird Tales, wrote to editor Farnsworth Wright in praise of Lovecraft's recently reprinted tale, "The Rats in the Walls," noting that the author's use of a Gaelic phrase when Cymric would have been more appropriate suggested that he might adhere to a minority view on the settling of the British Isles [3]. Lovecraft, to whom Wright forwarded the letter, wrote Howard to explain that he had merely lifted a convenient phrase from Fiona Macleod's "The Sin Eater" [4], and thus began an epistolary friendship that lasted until Howard's death in June 1936.

In Lovecraft's second letter to Howard (the first does not survive), in July 1930, he discusses legends of the "little people" and argues that they are due to "vague memories of contact with the Mongoloids" (such as present-day Lapps) encountered by the early Celts in continental Europe, before their movement into the British Isles, and not on their contact with the prehistoric inhabitants of the Isles, who were of Mediterranean origin (Howard's "Picts") [5]. Howard replied:

"Your observations regarding the Mongoloid aborigines and their relation to the fairy-tales of western Europe especially interested me. I had supposed, without inquiring very deeply into the matter, that these legends were based on contact with the earlier Mediterraneans, and indeed, wrote a story on that assumption which appeared some years ago in Weird Tales -- 'The Lost Race'. I readily see the truth of your remarks, that a Mongoloid race must have been responsible for the myths of the Little People...." [6]
It was not long before Howard put that notion into a story.

In the same letter, Howard somewhat timidly asked Lovecraft about the references to "Cthulu, Yog Sothoth, R'lyeh, Yuggoth etc." which appeared in his stories. Fearing that it was his own lack of erudition that was responsible for his lack of familiarity with these names, he noted that very similar names appeared in stories by Adolph de Castro, and that a writer to the Weird Tales letter column had wondered if Howard's own "Kathulos" (in "Skull-Face") was based on "Cthulhu." Lovecraft replied that these were names of his own invention, and that the reason the names are echoed in de Castro's tales was that those were in fact revised by Lovecraft himself, and he stuck the names in just for fun. He also gave Howard some background on the Necronomicon (another Lovecraft invention), and informed him that "Clark Ashton Smith is launching another mock mythology revolving around the black, furry toad-god Tsathoggua," which he said he would himself be using in future stories. He also said, "It would be amusing to identify your Kathulos with my Cthulhu -- indeed, I may so adopt him in some future black allusion." In effect, he invited Howard to join him and Smith in sprinkling references to this "solemnly cited myth-cycle" through their work.[7]

A remark of Howard's in a September 1930 letter is somewhat puzzling, and unfortunately, the Lovecraft letter that prompted it does not seem to survive.

"Thank you very much for the kind things you said about the 'Bran-cult. I notice the current Weird Tales announces my 'Kings of the Night' for next month's issue. I hope you like the story. Bran is one of the 'Kings'. I intend to take your advice about writing a series of tales dealing with Bran." [8]
What is puzzling is that, at the time this was written, no story of Bran Mak Morn -- no story even mentioning Bran -- had been published. The only explanation that suggests itself is that Howard may have sent Lovecraft his manuscript for "Men of the Shadows," which had been rejected by Weird Tales in early 1926. [9]

By October, these elements from the correspondence had come together in a work of fiction. Howard told Lovecraft,

"By the way, I recently sold Weird Tales a short story, 'The Children of the Night,' in which I deal with Mongoloid-aborigine legendry, touch cryptically on the Bran-cult, and hint darkly and vaguely of nameless things connected with Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Tsathoggua andthe Necronomicon...." [10]
This is the first of what some have termed Howard's "Lovecraftian" tales, and the first-published of those Howard stories whose origins can be traced in his letters to Lovecraft. Many more would follow. In this story, too, we find the first of Howard's contributions to what has been termed the "Cthulhu mythos": the mad German, Von Junzt, and his esoteric book, Nameless Cults.

There followed, in quick succession, three more tales in the Lovecraft vein: "The Black Stone," "The Thing on the Roof," and the final Solomon Kane story to appear in Weird Tales, "The Footfalls Within." [11] This was, in my opinion, the first of Howard's stories to meld the cosmic horror of Lovecraft with Howard's own unique brand of adventure fiction. In it, Kane is captured by Arab slavers who stumble upon a mysterious mausoleum in the African jungle and unwittingly release the horror that dwells within it.

"The Black Stone" and "The Thing on the Roof," though, are more purely Lovecraftian tales. In the former, perhaps Howard's most frequently anthologized story, we are for the first time introduced to another of Howard's contributions to the "mythos," the mad poet Justin Geoffrey, and are given a good deal more detail about Von Junzt and his unholy book. This story seems to have had its origin in Lovecraft's discourse upon the origins of the witch cults of ancient Europe (in the letter of July 1930, previously mentioned). It is almost purely in the manner of Lovecraft: I can think of no prior example of a Howard story in which his protagonist "fell into a merciful faint"! Howard himself recognized his debt to his friend:

"As for 'The Black Stone' my story appearing in the current Weird Tales, since reading it over in print, I feel rather absurd. The story sounds as if I were trying, in my feeble and blunderingly crude way, to deliberately copy your style. Your literary influence on that particular tale, while unconscious on my part, was none the less strong." [12]
Whether or not the influence was truly unconscious, Howard felt it was a good story, as he wrote to his friend Clyde Smith in December 1930:
"The Weird Tale story, a short one that brought $64, was infinitely better [than "The Blood of Belshazzar"], though marred by a clumsy style and a too melodramatic development. It carried out the theme I mentioned to you in a previous letter; the title is The Black Stone, and is the best attempt at bizarre literature that I have yet sold. I have a still shorter and better story, The Thing on the Roof, which I have not yet sent Farnsworth and which I may not send him, since he says he is stocked up. But this story is by far the best thing I have ever written and one which I am really inclined to believe approaches real literature, distantly, at least." [13]
This is not a judgment which most readers have shared; perhaps Howard was not his own best critic. In fact, while "The Black Stone" sold the first time out, "The Thing on the Roof" encountered more resistance from the editors. Howard told Smith in August 1931:
"I just got a letter from Farnsworth hinting Tamerlane as a fit subject for an Oriental Story story. He likewise mentioned my The Thing on the Roof which not only the best story by far that I ever wrote, but which is, in my honest opinion, a really first-class weird story judged by any standards. That sounds conceited and probably is; just the same, I hold to it. Several months ago Farnsworth rejected the tale saying it seemed too erudite for the general reader, though he liked it himself. Claytons likewise rejected it, saying the plot was too thin etc. etc. also etc. There was no attempt at plot. Like most real weird stories, it had no plot. Argosy rejected it with the usual stereotype. Then Farnsworth asked to see it again, when he accepted my The Sowers of the Thunder for Oriental Stories. In his latest letter he accepted it for $40. Not much money, but in this case I wasn't really thinking about the money and he could have had the story for nothing, if he'd made me that proposition. I'd have given it to him free, just to get it in print." [14]
Fortunately, Howard did not continue trying to write stories emulative of Lovecraft. From early 1931 on, his work in the horror genre took two different paths. One was the melding of horror with heroic adventure and fantasy: the "cosmic horror" of Lovecraft, in which the "monsters" are not so much malevolently inclined toward mankind as they are entirely alien and completely indifferent to us, found its way into the mix that produced Howard's best known work, the stories of Conan the Cimmerian, as well as some of his finest tales, such as "Worms of the Earth" and "The Valley of the Worm." The other path was the setting of horror tales in Howard's own Southwestern locale. Again, the origins of these two paths can be found in his letters to Lovecraft.

In one of the earliest of these letters, from September 1930, in response to a remark about "African-legend sources," Howard relates his own fascination with ghost stories told to him, when he was a child, by "Aunt Mary" Bohannon, a cook who had been born into slavery.

"Another tale she told that I have often met with in negro-lore. The setting, time and circumstances are changed by the telling, but the tale remains basically the same. Two or three men -- usually negroes -- are travelling in a wagon through some isolated district -- usually a broad, deserted river-bottom. They come on to the ruins of a once thriving plantation at dusk, and decide to spend the night in the deserted plantation house. This house is always huge, brooding and forbidding, and always, as the men approach the high columned verandah, through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away. The men sleep in the big front-room with its crumbling fire-place, and in the night they are awakened by a jangling of chains, weird noises and groans from upstairs. Sometimes footsteps descend the stairs with no visible cause. Then a terrible apparition appears to the men who flee in terror. This monster, in all the tales I have heard, is invariably a headless giant, naked or clad in shapeless sort of garment, and is sometimes armed with a broad-axe." [15]
At what point Howard turned this ghost story into his compelling "Pigeons From Hell" we do not know -- the first mention of the story is a notation that it was received by Howard's agent at the end of 1934. It is tempting to think that Griswell and Branner, the New Englanders who encounter horror in the old deserted house, are modelled on Lovecraft and one of his friends, perhaps Frank Belknap Long.

Howard's own interest in the pioneer history of Texas had been growing, and Lovecraft, enthralled by passages in Howard's letters relating historical episodes, encouraged him to pursue the subject more actively and work it into fiction. Howard began to fill his letters with tales of Texas history, Indian fights, gunfighters, pioneers, and other Western topics. Some of it is extraordinarily vivid, such as his accounts of the bloody Lincoln County War, in which Billy the Kid played the starring role. Howard also begins, at this time, to express his own political views regarding the exploitation of Texas by outside interests, particularly the big oil companies, and the problems encountered by small farmers as Depression and drought take hold of the country. While deploring their failure to practice sound land management principles, his sympathies clearly lie with the beleaguered farmers.

All these elements came together in the first of his horror tales set in Texas, "The Horror from the Mound. Here the horror is not especially "cosmic" -- it is a vampire. Again, though, Howard has given us an unusual twist on traditional lore. Too unusual for one Weird Tales reader, at least, who wrote: "'The Horror from the Mound' was the single poor effort in the issue; containing as it did no less than four flagrant breaches of accepted vampire tradition. Are we to believe, simply because Mr. Howard so informs us, that vampires can now remain alive for years, underground, without their customary nightly feast of human blood? Or that they can be confined to their graves by a mere slab of rock? Or that they now find it necessary to engage in rough-house wrestling bouts with their prospective victims? Improvements are always in order, but Mr. Howard's new type of vampire is certainly no improvement!" [16]

One wonders what the fourth breach of "accepted vampire tradition" might have been. And just where, we wonder, is this "accepted vampire tradition" codified? Fortunately, Howard was not swayed by this reader's comments, and continued to exhibit originality in his horror tales, increasingly set in Texas or the Southwest: "Old Garfield's Heart," "The Man on the Ground," "Black Canaan," and "The Dead Remember" are among the best of these. The roots of all of them can be traced through Howard's letters to Lovecraft.

Interestingly, one "Lovecraftian" tale, "Dig Me No Grave," was originally written before the commencement of Howard's correspondence with Lovecraft. Originally titled "John Grimlan's Debt," it was written in 1929, and rejected by Ghost Stories. While there is no existing record that Howard submitted it to Weird Tales, it would be most unusual if he had not, so it seems likely that it was rejected there, too. Under the title "Dig Me No Grave," it was found on Howard's desk after his suicide, with a note directing his father to send it, and two other stories, "The Fire of Asshurbanipal" and "Black Hound of Death," to Weird Tales. Since "The Fire of Asshurbanipal" was originally a straight adventure story to which Howard later grafted supernatural elements relating it to the "Cthulhu mythos," it may be that Howard revised the earlier tale near the end of his life, adding the Lovecraftian elements at that time.

Howard always considered H.P. Lovecraft one of the three greatest horror writers; as he wrote in "The Children of the Night," the others he considered to be Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Machen. Undoubtedly he absorbed influences from the other two ("The Little People" seems to owe a debt to Machen's "The Shining Pyramid"), but clearly the Lovecraft influence was the most significant. This is not to say that Howard's work was imitative or derivative. Though his early efforts seem to have been just that, his tendency to put himself into his stories could not long be denied. In his best stories, Howard's own passion and originality dominate, and his preference for men of action differs from Lovecraft's preference for horror in which any human actions are of little or no consequence. But there can be no question that his correspondence with Lovecraft was a significant catalyst in the creation of the Texan's finest horror and heroic fantasy tales.


This article was originally written for Cross Plains Comics' Robert E. Howard's Horror. It was written in October 1999 in response to a request from editor Richard Ashford, but was not used when the book was finally published in August 2000. I included it in Seanchai 98, my contribution to the 168th mailing of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association, April 2001. I have here made some changes to eliminate specific references to the comic book in which it was to have appeared, as well as some other minor changes.

[1] Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York: Everest House, 1981), p. 219

[2] See http://www.rehupa.com/biography_bookshelf_l.htm

[3] ditto

[4] At the end of Lovecraft's story, he has his protagonist raving in increasingly archaic languages to indicate a descent into madness and atavism: "Magna Mater! Magna Mater!...Atys...Dia ad aghaidh 's ad aodann...agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas 's dholas ort, agus leat-sa!... Ungl... ungl... rrlh... chchch.." Regarding this passage, Lovecraft had written to Frank Belknap Long in 1923: "That bit of gibberish which immediately followed the atavistic Latin was not pithecanthropoid. The first actual ape-cry was the 'ungl'. What the intermediate jargon is, is perfectly good Celtic -- a bit of venomously vituperative phraseology which a certain small boy ought to know; because his grandpa, instead of consulting a professor to get a Celtic phrase, found a ready-made one so apt that he lifted it bodily from 'The Sin-Eater' by Fiona McLeod, in the volume of Best Psychic Stories which Sonny himself generously sent! I thought you'd note that at once -- but youth hath a crowded memory. Anyhow, the only objection to the phrase is that it's Gaelic instead of Cymric as the south-of-England locale demands. But as with anthropology -- details don't count. Nobody will ever stop to note the difference." (H.P. Lovecraft [HPL] to Frank Belknap Long, November 8, 1923, in H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters [HPL SL], vol. I (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1965), pp. 258f. (Lovecraft's conceit was that he was "Grandpa" and Long, 13 years his junior, was "Sonny.") Fiona Macleod (William Sharp) translates the phrase as "God against thee and in thy face -- and may a death of woe be yours. Evil and sorrow to thee and thine!" "The Sin-Eater" may be found at http://www.sundown.pair.com/SundownShores/Volume_II/sin-eater.htm

[5] HPL to Robert E. Howard (REH), July 20, 1930, in HPL SL, vol. III (1971), pp. 161f.

[6] REH to HPL, ca. August 1930, in Robert E. Howard: Selected Letters 1923-1930 (REH SL1) (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1989), p. 53

[7] HPL to REH,August 14, 1930, in HPL SL III, pp. 166f.

[8] REH to HPL, ca. September 1930, in REH SL1, p. 60

[9] The more I think about it, though, the less certain I am about this - I'm not sure I see enough in "Men of the Shadows" to infer a "Bran cult". But while "The Dark Man" was written at the same time as "Kings of the Night" (March 1930, well before the commencement of the REH-HPL correspondence), it had been sold to Farnsworth Wright (for a proposed magazine to be called Strange Stories) and would not appear until December 1931 (in Weird Tales). It would have been most unusual for Howard to have sent HPL a ms. (whether draft or carbon) of a story he had sold. They did apparently exchange unsold mss. and poetry.

[10] REH to HPL, ca. October 1930, in REH SL1, p. 74

[11] An earlier draft of "The Footfalls Within" contains no Lovecraftian references, suggesting that Howard may have revised the story after the beginning of his correspondence with HPL.

[12] REH to HPL, ca. October 1931, unpublished.

[13] REH to Tevis Clyde Smith (TCS), ca. December 1931.

[14] REH to TCS, ca. August 1931, in Robert E. Howard: Selected Letters 1931-1936 (REH SL2) (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1991), p. 10. Howard did write a story about Tamerlane, "Lord of Samarcand," published in Oriental Stories, Spring 1932. "Claytons" was Clayton Magazines, publisher of Strange Tales. "The Sowers of the Thunder" appeared in Oriental Stories, Winter 1932. In comparison to the $40 offered for "The Thing on the Roof," Howard received $56 each for "The Black Stone" and "The Footfalls Within," and $60 for "The Children of the Night."

[15] REH to HPL, ca. September 1930, in REH SL1, p. 59

[16] Harold Dunbar, of Chatham Massachusetts, to The Eyrie, Weird Tales, July 1932


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