Her Letters to Robert E. Howard: Catherine Lucille Moore

Dear Mr. Howard:

My blessing! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman.” It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

Catherine Lucille Moore burst into the pages of Weird Tales with “Shambleau” (Nov 1933). She was a secretary at the Fletcher Trust Company in her native Indianapolis, Indiana, and engaged to a bank teller named Herbert Ernest Lewis. During the Great Depression, jobs were scarce and her $25 a week was needed to support her family; married women were often expected to be homemakers, and this may be why Moore and her fiance had a long engagement—and it is why, when she began to sell her stories to the pulps for extra cash, she used her initials “C. L.” so that her employers would not discover she had an extra source of income.

By the time C. L. Moore hit the pages of Weird Tales, to immediate acclaim, Robert E. Howard had already become a fixture; his stories of Conan the Cimmerian were still going strong, interspersed with other weird tales and poems, as well as sales to Weird Tales‘ companion magazine The Magic Carpet, and he had just employed an agent, Otis Adelbert Kline, who would help Howard break into many other pulp markets.

Both Moore and Howard had correspondents in common, notably H. P. Lovecraft, but also R. H. Barlow and E. Hoffmann Price; Howard and Moore also shared a friend in Frank Thurston Torbett, a Texan fan of weird fiction. Yet there is nothing in the letters of either of the principles to their friends to suggest of a correspondence between two of the great fantasists of Weird Tales in the ’30s. All that is known to survive of their correspondence is a single letter, dated 29 January 1935…and from that, and a few inferences in the rest of their correspondence to others, is all that we can judge of their exchange.

To begin with, we know that Moore was a fan:

I’d like to read everything Robert E. Howard has ever written. The first story of his I read was WORMS OF THE EARTH, and I’ve been a fanatic ever since. And of course Lovecraft and Price.
—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, n. d. [early Apr 1934], MSS John Hay Library

In the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, readers were treated to both the Conan story “The People of the Black Circle” and “Black God’s Kiss” by C. L. Moore—which introduced her character Jirel of Joiry, a redheaded French swordswoman in a fantastic medieval France. While not as heavy on the action as Howard, Moore’s weird imagination and the fiery disposition of her warrior made an impression on the readers, with comments printed such as:

I (and I’m sure many others) want to hear a great deal more of Jirel. She’s the kind of person I’d like to be myself. A sort of feminine version of Conan the Cimmerian. He, too, is one of my favorites.
—Mary A. Conklin, WT Dec 1934

The character of Jirel may become as famous to us as Conan. I vote her first place.
—Claude H. Cameron, WT Jan 1935

We don’t know exactly what began the exchange of letters; Lovecraft, Price, Barlow, or Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright could all easily have supplied the other’s address for the asking. Near the end of the letter, Moore writes:

Thanks for being flattering about “Black God’s Shadow,” and for letting me read “Sword-Woman.” So see if you can’t find some more about Agnes?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 27

“Black God’s Shadow,” the second Jirel of Joiry story, was published in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which would have hit the stands in mid-November. Few of Howard’s letters from this period survive, but a letter to August Derleth (11 Dec 1934) mentions the contents of the December Weird Tales. “Sword Woman” was an historical adventure story starring Dark Agnès de Chastillion, a red-haired female warrior-mercenary in 16th century France—with obvious parallels to Jirel of Joiry, although the two were conceived separately. “Sword Woman” is neither set in the East or a weird story, so it would seem unlikely that Farnsworth Wright saw and rejected it, unless it was intended for the never-published third magazine Strange Stories; possibly Howard had intended to send it to Action Stories.

We can only speculate who wrote first. What is clear is that the 29 January letter is not the first letter in the exchange; it is too involved in answering specific points from a previous letter, such as notorious bank robber John Dillinger, who had been shot to death on 22 July 1934:

About Dillinger, it’s not distinction in this part of the country to have known him—practically everyone did. Mooresville, his home town, is only a few miles south of here and happens to be my fiance’s birthplace too. I know several who went to school with him, and in Mooresville the sympathy with him ran very high.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

Howard, who had a fondness for outlaws (at least of a certain sort), had been following news of Dillinger at least somewhat, since he had written to Lovecraft on 24 March 1934 that “Notice they haven’t caught Dillinger yet” (A Means to Freedom 2.724). Presumably he had responded to some comment that Moore had made, possibly regarding his death.

Much of the letter, however, focuses on a mutual love of both Howard and Moore: poetry. In keeping with the theme of warrior-women, Moore thanks Howard for “the original of Mary Ambree,” which suggests Howard copied out the ballad that begins:

WHEN captains courageous, whom death could
Did march to the siege of the city of Gaunt,
They mustered their soldiers by two and by three,
And the foremost in battle was Mary Ambree.

From Moore’s comments, the other snippets of poetry were taken from Kipling (the title of whose novel Captains Courageous is taken from the ballad); Howard had an edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse in his library at the time of his death. Other poems Howard quoted include Frederick I. C. Clarke’s “The Fighting Race” (“But his rusty pike’s in the cabin still, With Hessian blood on the blade.”) and G. K. Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse” (“That bore King Alfred’s battle-sword Broken in his left hand.”) Most, if not all, of the poems are about battle and war, suggesting that they were discussing the theme, possibly as an extension of Jirel and Agnès.

Well, I could go on and one forever on that line, but had better change the subject.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 25

What’s left of the letter is largely concerned with Howard’s own fiction, especially Conan stories. She mentions “The Devil in Iron” (WT Aug 1934) and “A Witch Shall Be Born” (WT Dec 1934), saying of the latter:

That “Witch” story was pretty strong meat, but perfectly grand. Such a lustiness about your stories when you want them that way. And the witch herself was gorgeous. Odear, I’m consumed with jealousy.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

There is a passing reference to “the new serial, with Conan among the frontiersmen,” which would be a reference to “Beyond the Black River” (WT May-Jun 1935) that Howard had just sold, and accepting his offer for a copy of “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales June 1934). Howard wrote to Lovecraft ca. Dec 1934 a passage which he might have copied, in essence if not word-for-word, in his preceding letter to Moore:

My latest sales to Weird Tales have been a two-part Conan serial: “Beyond the Black River”—a frontier story; and a novelet dealing with Mississippi negroes, etc. “The Moon of Zambebwei”, which I understand will be changed to “The Grisly Horror.” In the Conan story I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely—abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a back-ground of forests and rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen Some day I’m going to try my hand at a longer yarn of the same style, a serial of four or five parts.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. Dec 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.817

Perhaps this precipitated one of the most interesting passages in Moore’s letter, the equivalent to asking Lovecraft if the Necronomicon is real:

Tell me, do  you really think it possible that mankind goes back as far, and thru as many changing times and topographies, as you write about? I understand Lovecraft, for instance, doesn’t take anything he writes at all seriously. But sometimes I have myself half convinced—as those times when I’m alone in the house late at night and am perfectly sure that the entire outside is one solid mass of vampires and were-wolves! It seems rather arbitrary to be hard-headed and say, “Nothing exists but what we can see or feel,” and yet it’s even worse to err on the side of credulity. What’s your opinion?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 26

Quite a few people would love to read Howard’s answer to that question. This letter to Robert E. Howard predates Moore’s first letter from Lovecraft, so she was repeating what her friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow had said about the Old Gent in Providence. As far as can be ascertained, Howard never mentioned his correspondence with Moore to Lovecraft, Moore never mentioned her correspondence with Howard to Lovecraft, and Lovecraft never mentioned his correspondence with Moore to Howard, but discusses and alludes to his correspondence with Howard to Moore. Whether that means that Howard and Moore corresponded only briefly, and dropped each other after a time—or whether it carried on for the rest of Howard’s brief life, we don’t know.

The implication, from some of her letters to Lovecraft showing ignorance of Howard’s upcoming publications and travels in 1935, suggest that the correspondence may have been sporadic or intermittent (Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 68, 70). Years later, she recalled in an interview:

Do you remember anything in particular about your correspondence with REH?

Moore: We really had such a short period to correspond that I don’t remember much, except that he seemed interested and had a good mind. We had enough common background that we were able to talk to each other, on paper anyway. I think he would have been pleasant to know—just as Lovecraft would’ve.
Chacal #1, 31

On 13 February 1936, her fiance Herbert Ernest Lewis died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Though reported as an accident in the newspapers and in Moore’s letters, the death certificate lists it as a suicide. Moore was severely affected, and Lovecraft rushed to keep her occupied:

Despite my upheaved programme I at once started a letter of what I thought to be the most consoling & useful sort—with sympathetic remarks & citations of others who have bravely pulled out of similar bereavements) gradually giving place to the cheerful discussion of general & impersonal topics in which long time-stretches (thus placing local & individual sorrows at the small end of the telescope) are concerned—answering a letter received early in February. History was the main theme—the dominant topic being Roman Britain & its long decline, as brought up by C L M’s discussion of Talbot Mundy’s “Tros” stories. That, I fancy, is the kind of stuff a bereaved person likes to get from the outside world—sincere sympathy not rubbed in, & a selection of general topics attuned to his interests & quietly reminding him that there is a world which has always gone on & which still goes on despite personal losses. […] I managed to finish & despatch the epistle last Monday. But the tragic accident surely is a beastly shame—far worse than deaths which do not his promising young folk with everything before them.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 321

Talbot Mundy, whose Tros of Samothrace was serialized in the pages of Adventure, was a favorite author of Robert E. Howard. What is real is that on 11 June 1936, Robert E. Howard took his own life, also with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Frank Thurston Torbett told Moore; Moore told Lovecraft; Lovecraft told everyone. With Robert E. Howard dead, she wrote to his father Dr. Isaac M. Howard for confirmation…and he wrote back:

I have since received a letter from Dr. Howard, his father, enclosing a note dated May 14 which REH had apparently been saving to send to me. […] The news was like a blow in the face. It’s amazing how real he seemed even through the medium of his letters. I had hoped to see him next year when and if I get that much-talked-of car and make the California trip, but he could scarcely have become more vivid had I known him personally.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 24 Jun 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 130-131

She wrote more to Lovecraft about Howard, but her most important letter was sent to his father:

It was a shock as stunning to me as if I had really known your son, for his letters made him very real to me. […] Nothing that I can say now would help you—I know, for four months ago I too suffered bereavement under very similar circumstances. The young man whom I was to marry this year was accidentally shot in the temple and instantly killed while leaning a gun which he thought unloaded. So I can understand what you are enduring now, and I know that nothing but time will help you find life worth living again. In one respect you are luckier than I, for you have memories of a full and happy life with your wife and son that nothing can take away. […] In the meantime, and until time has brought your comfort, as it is just now beginning to comfort me, there is nothing to say except that all over the United States we are grieving with you, and not only for you but for ourselves.
—C. L. Moore to Dr. I. M. Howard, 25 Jun 1936, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 52-53

The letter was published in the Cross Plains Review for 3 July 1936, although they misspelled her name.

We can only guess what else Howard and Moore might have discussed: poetry, philosophy, history, and action were all shared interests. Perhaps Howard showed her his other unpublished Dark Agnès works, or “Red Nails” with the pirate Valeria; perhaps she shared some of her own unpublished fiction, or they discussed Otis Adelbert Kline. Perhaps; unless some cache of letters surfaces, this is all we have…and perhaps we should be grateful that even this letter was saved from the ash heap of history.

The sole surviving letters to Robert E. Howard and Dr. Isaac M. Howard are published in The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

5 thoughts on “Her Letters to Robert E. Howard: Catherine Lucille Moore

  1. Fascinating post. I continue to be amazed at what prolific letter writers these prolific fiction writers were. And their correspondence is almost as riveting and thought-provoking as their published works.

    Like

  2. Greetings from India. I become a fan of REH and classic pulps a couple of years ago and enjoying the blogosphere of articles. Thanks.

    Like

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