This is such nasty weather I do hope you keep your feet dry and warm. I am afraid you will expose yourself and take the flu. Please wear your overcoat, or at least your suit with coat and vest. I warned you.
Hester Jane Ervin was born 11 July 1870 in Hill County, Texas, the eighth child of “Colonel” George W. Ervin and his wife Sara Jane. The family eventually settled in Lewisville, where Hester began attending school, where she learned to read and write, and found a special love for poetry:
She loved poetry. Written poetry by sheets and reams, almost books of it, was stored in her memory so that from Robert’s babyhood he had heard its recital. Day by [day,] heard poetry from his mother. She was a lover of the beautiful.
The Erwin family moved as circumstances changed. From Lewisville to Lampasas, TX, and from there to Exeter, MO. Hester Howard’s profession was probably that of a family caretaker, helping to care for her older relatives and her younger stepsiblings; she is known to have traveled to visit relatives in Texas. Marriage, however, remained elusive…until 12 Jan 1904, when she was 33 years old, Hester married a traveling physician, Dr. Isaac M. Howard. (Renegades & Rogues 7-10)
The Howards’ marriage was marked by frequent moves, and private difficulties. They appear to have had trouble conceiving, and even made steps toward fostering Wallace Howard, the youngest child of Dr. Howard’s brother David. The adoption was only called off when Hester became pregnant. She gave birth to Robert Ervin Howard on 22 Jan 1906, when she was 36 years old. A second pregnancy c. 1908 ended in a miscarriage, and Robert would be her only child. (Renegades & Rogues 16-17, 19)
In October 1919, the Howards finally settled down in the small town of Cross Plains, TX; which would be Hester Howard’s home for the rest of her life, aside from a brief stay in Brownwood while Robert was finishing his high school education, and trips to various hospitals and the like. Hester Howard’s death certificate lists the cause of death as tuberculosis, and it is known that for several years she had suffered at least intermittent and increasingly bad health. It isn’t clear when the disease began to manifest, but by the time Howard began corresponding with H. P. Lovecraft in the 1930s the spells of ill-health were no doubt pronounced; Dr. Howard stated in one letter dated 11 Jul 1936 that “Mrs. Howard had been in failing health for five years” (The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 76), and around that time Robert mentions a:
[…] small health resort about thirty miles east of Waco where I spent a week.
This would have been the Torbett Sanitarium at Marlin, TX, which was run by friends of the Howards and where Hester would receive occasional treatment—almost 160 miles from Cross Plains. The illness would progress, and caring for his mother, paying for her treatment, and getting her back and forth from various hospitals would take a toll on the Howard family.
Only two letters survive from Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard survive, the first dated 9 Dec 1926, the second 4 Jan 1927. At that time, Robert E. Howard was in Brownwood, TX, attending the Howard Payne Academy with the aim for a certificate in bookkeeping, all the while working on his writing. His career in the pulps was just beginning—but it was almost cut short:
There are some cases of measles in Brownwood, and if you begin to feel bad, ache or feverish or anything, go to Dr. Fowler, Bailey or Snyder, or any of these men, & let them go over you to see what your trouble is. Try to be sensible about yourself & keep fit.
The measles outbreak turned into an epidemic, including the boarding house where Robert was staying. According to his friend Lindsey Tyson, the almost-19-year-old Robert did the exact opposite of heeding his mother’s advice:
While we were there an epidemic of measles got started, the Powells we were living with had a baby girl who got the disease. The Howards heard about the epidemic and came to take Bob home as he had never had the measles. Bob said this time I damn [sic] sure will have this stuff, he did not want to go. He went into the bathroom that the little girl had been useing [sic] picked up a glass that the child had probably been useing, [sic] drank out of it, rubbed a towel over his face that he thought she had probably been using.
Hester Howard’s two surviving letters to her son show all the concerns a mother might have for a son who was effectively living away from home for the first time. They ask about his health, give his bank account information, share bits of local news and gossip, sending a bit of money for Christmas 1926 so Robert could buy books—and there would have been more letters from home, probably a steady stream of them week after week during the fall, winter, and spring semesters:
Well, I will write again first of next week if I can’t come.
Well, i believe that is all for this time. Please change your shirts every 2 or 3 days, also your handkerchiefs & sox. Please keep clean, and bring Lindsey [Tyson] & one of the other boys home with you on the 21st next. Don’t know, but we might get to come for you. Can’t tell yet, but will write again. Be sure & write to Mother with love–
How many more letters flowed between mother and son? While Robert E. Howard went on periodic trips throughout his adult life, as far south as the Mexican border and as far west as New Mexico, he rarely stayed in any town or city outside of Cross Plains for long unless he was there to take care of his mother. It is not hard to imagine him sending a postcard or letter from his trips to brighten her day, but he hardly seems to have stayed in one place away from home long enough for any sort of correspondence outside of the extended Brownwood sojourn.
Today, the Howard house in Cross Plains is a museum, and visitors can walk through the rooms and imagine Hester Howard sitting at the table to write out a letter to her son. There would be chores to do around the house; food to cook and animals to look after, washing and knitting or sewing to be done, the newspaper to read, perhaps friends and neighbors to visit with…and Bob’s room, right next to her own, with its piles of books and magazines, waiting for her boy to come home. She would jot down her thoughts, her hopes and concerns, for the young man who was her only son, hoping and praying he would be okay…and waiting, perhaps, on his own letters home to let her know how he progressed in his studies, what movies he had seen, or what King Kull was getting up to in Valusia.
These are not the literary letters that Robert E. Howard might have received from C. L. Moore, or the teasing love-letters from Novalyne Price, but the utterly prosaic letters of a woman who had come very far in life to settle in a small West Texas town, and wanted to make sure her son changed his socks so his feet wouldn’t stink. Far and away from how we might think of Robert E. Howard, who liked to fill his letters to H. P. Lovecraft with blood and thunder…but a part of him that should not be overlooked: the man, not the legend, and the mother who kept him in clean shirts and socks.
Novalyne Price was born to Homer and Etna Reed Price in Brownwood, Texas in 1908. Her parents’ marriage did not last through her childhood; in 1919 Etna remarried to Albert C. Sears, though this marriage would also end in divorce in the 1930s. She was two grades behind Robert E. Howard at Brownwood High, who finished high school at Brownwood because the school at Cross Plains stopped at 10th grade. She took classes at the local Daniel Baker College while still in high school, and finally graduated high school and entered as a full-time student in 1925 with a focus on Oratory and Literature.
It appears that working her way through college required her to alternate semesters, so she did not matriculate with her second diploma until Spring 1933—in the middle of the Great Depression. There were few options for educated women when it came to work; teaching was a respectable professional, but underfunded schools often paid teachers in scrip rather than cash…and had strict expectations:
“There will be no drinking, smoking, dancing, Sunday picture shows, or playing bridge by any member of this faculty.” […]
“You should not plan to go home every weekend either,” Mr. Williams went on. “You will be expected to stay here where your work is and attend church here. I want to make it clear that there will be no drinking by any member of this faculty.” He cleared his throat. “Furthermore, we want to keep the children from smoking if we can. No smoking on the school grounds or in the buildings. If they see you smoke, they will want to smoke, too. And this applies to the lady faculty members; we more or less accept the fact that men smoke, even if we don’t quite approve of it, but lady faculty members are not to smoke anytime, anywhere.” […]
“It has come to my attention that some teachers play bridge so late at night they cannot do their work the next day. You are not to play bridge, not even in your rooms at your boarding places.”
Nevertheless, Novalyne Price began her career as an educator in January 1934 in a small town outside of Abilene, Texas…but the next year she took a position at Cross Plains, closer to Brownwood where her mother and grandmother kept a farm…and where, perhaps not coincidentally, Robert E. Howard lived.
Novalyne had been aware of Bob Howard through their mutual friends in Brownwood; she had dated Howard’s good friend Tevis Clyde Smith, and he had introduced the two in 1932. Like Robert E. Howard, she was interested in becoming a writer. Now that they were both in Cross Plains, the two renewed their acquaintance…and began what would be a tumultuous on-again, off-again romance. The two dated, argued, exchanged gifts, flirted, met each other’s families, went on long drives in the country, debated, criticized each other’s fiction, quarreled and made up and quarreled again…a story chronicled in her memoir One Who Walked Alone, later made into the motion picture The Whole Wide World.
For the 1934-1935 and 1935-1936 school years, Novalyne Price lived in a boarding house within easy walking distance of the Howard home. Despite this, the two carried on their relationship in part by correspondence. While Howard was on no set schedule, he occasionally made trips for days at a time out of town, and they would keep in touch by letter; so too, Novalyne Price had to work full-time, and unpaid overtime as she worked to coach some of the school’s extracurricular activities, which left little time during the week for visits so Bob would mail her notes and letters. Ten of these letters from Bob to Novalyne survive, reproduced in Price’s memoir and subsequently in collections of Howard’s letters.
The first letter was sent 27 September 1934:
How about going to the show in Brownwood Sunday afternoon? I’ll be over about 1:30 p.m. Let me know by return mail.
Teachers in Cross Plains were not supposed to go out to picture shows on Sundays. Nor was Robert E. Howard the normal sort of fellow to date: his profession as a writer set him apart in what was still predominantly a farming and tradesman’s community, a little crossroads town that had grown up overnight due to an oil boom and was still very conservative…and Bob Howard had developed a reputation as someone eccentric. Weird.
If I date Bob, some people will tease me. Others will think I’m crazy or peculiar. So what?
You pay a price for everything in this life. You have to decide for yourself whether the price is reasonable or too high. […]
I went to my room, sat down at the typewriter and wrote three lines to Bob to tell him I’d be glad to go to Brownwood to see a show and that one-thirty would be fine. I took the letter out of the typewriter, got up, and told Ethel I was going to the post office to mail it. She thought she ought to go with me, but I insisted on going alone.
Outside, the stars were dim and far away. A soft wind touched my face. I ran most of the way to the post office.
The impression from Novalyne’s memoir is that there were more such notes, because sometime around October 1934 she writes:
The only letter in my box was from Bob. I didn’t have time to read it, but I glanced at it and burst out laughing right there in the post office. He didn’t write “Dear Novalyne” as he usually did. Instead he began: “My Cherished Little Bunch of Onion Tops.”
The letter was nearly two pages, typed, single spaced, and I knew it was going to be mostly about the story I’d gotten back which he had taken home to read.
Novalyne’s early stories aren’t known to survive but appear to have been mostly realistic stories aimed at the confessional or romance pulps, dealing with subjects like a woman with an illegitimate child. With her busy schedule at school, grading papers, and with extracurricular projects, Novalyne had little time for writing or revising her fiction to meet editorial standards…yet she was eager to see what a professional could tell her to improve her writing.
First, he explained that men made a terrible mistake when they called their best girls thier rose or violet or names like that, because a man ought to call his girl something that was near his heart. What, he asked, was nearer a man’s heart than his stomach? Therefore he considered it to be an indication of his deep felt love and esteem to call me his cherished little bunch of onion tops, and, judging from past experience, both of us had the highest regard for onions.
The rest of the letter was about my story—”Vixens CLimb Trees.” He said that he’d gotten the best laugh he’d had in a long time, for he understood perfectly the girl’s discomfiture riding a rough, ornery cayuse like the one I had described in the story.
Something he really liked, he said, was the background for the story. It was just there.
Howard offered to write to his agent Otis Adelbert Kline to look at the story, which he apparently did as later on Price writes about receiving an answer from Kline. This was, though she may not have known it, more than a friendly gesture on his part: like many agents, Kline could demand reading fees for work. Presumably, he didn’t charge Novalyne Price as a favor to Howard, who was on his way to becoming a good client.
Writing was like eating onions; the more you did, the better you liked it. Some day, soon, he was sure I’d find an appreciative editor. But the secret, he said, was to write, write, write.
That was discouraging. How could I write and write? I am behind with my paper grading and Enid is on my back constantly. But working with individual students after school, then going back at night to rehearse plays, how could I write more and more. These diaries and journals, of which he is so skeptical, take about all the time I have to give. Here it is after twelve o’clock, and I’m tired. All I want to do is go to bed and forget everything.
There were several disconnects like that between Novalyne and Bob. He had already made the leap and committed himself to be a full-time writer, and could write twelve hours a day if he had to. His advice was no doubt honest, as it had been what he himself had done: learn by doing. Yet Novalyne had a career already and struggled with her schedule as it was. She couldn’t afford to write like Bob did.
Bob Howard did encourage her, and busy as she was he also doted on her in his own fashion. Presumably, during the week she was often too busy to go out for a drive, see a picture, or even have a fizz at the soda fountain; probably they couldn’t spend hours on the phone either. Yet there was always the post office.
The only bright spot in the whole week has been the cutre little notes or letters I’ve gotten from him every day. All of them ebgin with “My very dear little Bunch of Radishes,” or “My very dear Beans, Cornbread and Onions,” or “My dear Sausage and Big, Brown, Fluffy Bisquits [sic].” He’s still on the kick that a man ought to call his girl names that are close to his heart—his stomach.
In one letter, Bob talked about how much it was raining and that neither man nor animal could keep his feet dry. But all this proved, he said, that he’d walk through floods for me. Then, in the postscript, he said he’d be over Saturday afternoon if it didn’t rain. That was the letter in which he called me sliced red beets with butter over them. […]
I wrote Bob, and he wrote me another goofy note to tell me he’d be over tonight, and we’d ride around and he’d shoot his mouth off. I had told him in th eletter that I loved to walk in the rain, and he said maybe I’d just as soon walk.
And on in that vein. Bob was sensitive to slights, real and perceived; Novalyne was sensitive to appearances. Small misunderstandings have a way, in Novalyne’s memoirs, to turn into more serious and sometimes ongoing arguments. Of course, in this case after their date, Bob went home, wrote her a letter, posted it, and then spent the rest of the night writing. Novalyne got the letter the next day…in an unsealed envelope. It began:
Dear Novalyne and Members of the Cross Plains Post Office Staff
The next letter we have the actual text for is a short note, c. December 1934, which included a poem from a fan (“Echo of the Ebon Isles” by Emil Petaja), and two of Howard’s own poems, “To A Woman” and “One Who Comes At Eventide” which had been published in Modern American Poetry 1933.
Though fahtoms deep you sink me in the mould, Locked in with thick-lapped lead and bolted wood, Yet rest not easy in your lover’s arms; Let him beware to stand where I have stood.
I shall not fail to burst my ebon case, And thrust aside the clods with fingers red: Your blood shall turn to ice to see my face Look from the shadows on your midnight bed.
To face the dead, he, too, shall wake in vain, My fingers at his throat, your scream his knell; He will not see me tear you from your bed, And drag you by your golden hair to Hell.
Robert E. Howard, “To A Woman” (1933)
Not perhaps the most romantic poem to share, but she had asked for it. Their relationship continued in that vein, and perhaps there were weeks when they wrote more than they saw each other because in March 1935 Bob had to take his mother to Temple, Tx. to receive medical treatment. Hester Howard’s illness, probably tuberculosis, was one of long duration and which allowed periods of outward good health; medical care was expensive, and Bob’s doting on a mother that Novalyne couldn’t see physically ailing was another point of misunderstanding.
Bob is coming home. I had a card from him, saying that his mother was getting better, and he was bringing her home. I wanted to write him a letter, telling him how my students did, but he probably will be home before the letter could get to him.
On the way home from a County Meet (22 March 1935) where her students performed, Novalyne Price collapsed and was taken to the hospital at Brownwood (30-31 March 1935). The nature of the illness is unclear; Novalyne’s memoir indicates she was eating little and sleeping little, and had gone down to eighty-five pounds, but never reveals what precisely the diagnosis was (One Who Walked Alone187). Dr. Dougherty, who treated Novalyne, recommended as part of her treatment she leave Texas for a time—recommending graduate studies out-of-state, which suggestion Novalyne Price would eventually take him up on.
Once back in Cross Plains, Novalyne and Bob’s relationship continued with its ups and downs. As the 1934-1935 semester wound down, a stack of papers that included many of Bob’s letters to her was mistaken for trash and burned. The timing was almost symbolic; in a downturn in her relationship with Bob, Novalyne had begun to date his friend Truett Vinson, without telling Bob. The fact came out while Bob and Truett had driven out to New Mexico (19-24 June 1935); Bob had punctuated the trip with two postcards to Novalyne.
I wrote to Bob in Cross Plains a very short note, telling him that I had gotten his cards and enjoyed them, except for the snake swallowing the rabbit […] The note I wrote was friendly, nothing more nor less.
This was followed by a longer letter from Bob, dated 4 July 1935, that seemed to hint that he knew Novalyne had been hanging out with Truett. She debated how or if to answer him.
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the letter or even whether I should answer. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write him and be very sweet and cut him as he had cut at Truett and me. It began to irritate me […] One other thought bothered me. No matter how irriated I became with Bob, I had enjoyed being with him, and I thought Cross Plains without him might be pretty dull.
Finally, I wrote him a short letter, and I tried to be as casual as I could possibly be. I even told him I was looking forward to seeing him again. His answer to that made me so mad I couldn’t see straight.
Robert E. Howard’s letter of 9 July 1935 to Novalyne Price while she was staying with her mother and grandmother in Brownwood is aggrieved: he sees himself as the butt of a cruel joke from two people he had seen as friends, but had concealed that they were going together from him for their own amusement. Novalyne, for her part, could not fathom this attitude: she had all but told him she was dating Truett. The “all but” is probably the heart of the break here, no doubt Bob was honestly hurt at the perceived betrayal, and Novalyne in not wanting to hurt him by telling him outright had worsened the miscommunication. Whatever the case, she did not take it well.
I had to read that letter twice to believe it. I was furious. […] My first impulse was to tear the letter up and go throw it in his face. I sat down at the typewriter and wrote him a letter, telling him to go to hel and take his mother with him! I told him that no other woman in the world but me would have put up with him, and that the only reason I did was because I could appreciate a person who had talent and a profession which he worked at hard enough to make the kind of success he had made. I told him I never wanted to see or speka to him again.
After I wrote it, I read it to Mother and Mammy. […]
“What do you think, Mother?” I asked.
“You’ve said it now,” she said quietly. “Tear it up.”
She did, eventually. Then, when she had calmed down a bit, Novalyne Price sat down to write Bob another letter, dated 12 July 1935. It begins:
Although you leave nothing for me to say, being a woman, I’ll say something anyway. You said that you didn’t care whom I went with. I know that, Bob. During the time that I went with you, I realized perfectly how you felt about women. Women chain a man down. You always wanted to be free and independent. Such an idea as being chained to a woman was obnoxious to you. Self-preservation was the first law which you recognize. Strange as it may seem, I, too, demand my freedom; self-preservation is also a law of my life. I’ll do anything which gives me pleasure and consider myself under no obligation to tell my friends my personal business.
There was more, about her relationship with Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith. For all their dates, Novalyne and Bob had never, apparently, defined their relationship. Though they obviously cared for one another, neither had been ready to commit to one another, at least not at the same time. Novalyne’s tone is still hurt, but perhaps not as angry as her first letter. She mailed it.
When I went to the mailbox this morning, I found an envelope with Bob’s name on it. I frowned. It really didn’t seem to me that my letter had had time to get to Cross Plains, yet here was a letter back from Bob, or else, I thought, as I walked slowly toward the house, this one had been written before he got mine. […]
Surprise! It was not a letter from Bob! It was my letter, the one I wrote last Friday! My letter was in the envelope; he had sent it back to me! There was not a single word or line from Bob…just my letter!
Readers today may argue whether or not Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price were ever in love, but they certainly knew how to piss each other off. Because of Bob’s gesture, this is the only letter from Novalyne Price to Robert E. Howard that survives.
While they may have wounded each other with things said and left unsaid, this was not the end of Novalyne and Bob’s relationship. Her memoirs for the 1935-1936 school year at Cross Plains are less detailed; a bit of the bloom had come off the rose, and Bob Howard had made some long trips as he ferried his mother to hospitals and healthcare facilities in Marlin and San Angelo, Tx., and so he was sometimes away from Cross Plains for days or weeks at a time. But they had managed to forgive each other a little, if not forget. That was part of their dynamic. Novalyne doesn’t write much of their correspondence during this period, but in an entry dated 13 February 1936 she wrote:
“The way to interest a writer, I said to my roommate, “is to ask him about his writing. After you find out what he’s doing and selling, you ask him to help you with your writing.” […]
“So you’re going to ask him about his writing?” she laughed.
“The letter is written and mailed. I asked him where and how much he was selling these days. Then I asked if he had any suggestions about markets I might sell to.”
He answered so promptly Mary Beth put her hand to her mouth and began munching away—to show me I had him eating out of my hand.
Bob replied in a good-sized letter dated 14 February 1936; noting the date he added near the end:
This being Valentine Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.
Yet beneath the surface, all the same issues that had driven them apart before remained. Hester Howard’s health continued to decline, Novalyne continued to harp on Bob about his appearance—she made a particular point of impugning his mustache—and there were other little misunderstandings that often cropped up into disagreements. For all their mutual admiration, Novalyne had no understanding of the seriousness of Hester’s illness or how her decline weighed on Bob; nor did Bob seem to understand why when he was feeling so blue she would pick on him about his mustache of all things.
In late February Bob once again took his mother to Marlin, Tx. for further medical treatment. It meant standing up Novalyne for a date…and he wrote her a letter to apologize for it and explain why, but quickly broke down into a torrent of words over their last date (“My God, arguing over a mustache when my whole life is crumbling to powder under my hands!”), until at the end he summed up with “[…] all I ever wanted was to be allowed to enjoy your company, and I always did, when you gave me any kind of chance. Your friend, Bob” (One Who Walked Alone 274).
I read the letter twice. Then I went into the bathroom, sat down and cried with anger and frustration. He did a beautiful job of blaming me for being foolish and mean when his life was breaking up around him! I admit I handled the situation badly! Should I write to tell him I loved Truett and that it nauseated me to death to hear him say about his mother: “I changed her gown and bed three times last night.” I think that’s his dad’s job. Not Bob’s.
At this point, it’s worth recalling that we really have only Novalyne’s memoir to describe her relationship with Robert E. Howard. Bob wrote almost nothing about his relationship with her: why would he mention such things to H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, or Clark Ashton Smith? They were peers at Weird Tales, but not intimates of that sort. Many of the incidental details of Novalyne’s memoir can be verified in other details of Howard’s letters, like the fact that in January 1936 Hester Howard suffered from terrible night sweats that required changing her gown and bedding.
Novalyne’s honesty in her memoir is presenting it “warts and all”—she does not come across as the sympathetic party, being honest about her own mistakes and feelings at the time, including her lack of understanding and empathy for what the Howards were going through.
The day after he mailed that letter ot me from Marlin, he wrote me a card, a fairly cheerful card, saying his mother seemed to be doing well, and he, too, was feeling better. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t ready to say anything else to him. I had already written him a letter, trying to excuse myself for the silly things I’d said. In some ways I chickened out and said I was unhappy.
Bob’s reply is dated 5 March. A certain strain of fatalism runs through it, beginning with the first paragraph:
I just not read the letter you wrote me Monday, February 24th. None of my mail has been forward to me at Marlin and this letter was with the rest I got out of the post office this morning. I’m sorry I didn’t get it before I left. If I had, I wouldn’t have written you in what must have seemed like such a bitter strain, though I did not mean it that way. I can’t blame you for not answering the card I wrote you from Marlin. It’s hard, in the last analysis, to blame anyone for anything. We are all caught in a mesh of circumstances we cannot break.
The Cross Plains school year ended 22 May 1936; these were their last days together, as Novalyne had already applied for and been accepted at Louisiana State University for graduate school over the summer, though she would be back in Cross Plains for the 1936-1937 school year. In packing her things to leave, she returned one of the books Bob had given her as a gift…and he wrote what turned out to be his final letter to her, dated 27 May 1936:
You needn’t have bothered about returning the book. I intended for you to keep it, if you wanted it. I hope you enjoy your vacation, and that you’ll find Louisiana all you hope it to be. I’m sure the courses of study you’re taking will be interesting and helpful. With the best wishes for your health, prosperity and success, I am, as I always was,
She never wrote that letter. Robert E. Howard would commit suicide on 11 July 1936, while Novalyne Price was at Louisiana State University; she would not return to Cross Plains until time for the 1936-1937 school term.
The correspondence of Novalyne Price and Robert E. Howard shows us how limited our understanding of relationships can be, not just because we have only an incomplete correspondence—ten letters and postcards from Bob to Novalyne, and one letter from Novalyne to Bob—but because so much of their relationship existed outside of that correspondence. While Robert E. Howard only ever interacted with C. L. Moore and H. P. Lovecraft through the mail, Novalyne and Bob would have interacted mostly face-to-face, talking, laughing, arguing, kissing, and enjoying a quiet moonrise as the case may be. For them, the letters were a buttress to their relationship, mostly during times when they couldn’t enjoy such facetime because of Novalyne’s busy schedule or because they were separated by distance (Novalyne going home to Brownwood during the school breaks, Bob’s trips around Texas and into New Mexico and Mexico).
We don’t have Robert E. Howard’s perspective on the relationship, but in comparison to his letters to friends and peers, his letters to Novalyne seem more intimate and unguarded; it was not unusual for Howard to shift his tone to display humor or pathos and self-recrimination, but the letters to Novalyne do seem to have a quality of pouring his heart out, at least as much as he can. Novalyne’s sole letter, and description of her other letters, show both honesty and her fierce independence. It was not a relationship where either Novalyne or Bob was solely at fault, both had flaws that prevented them from coming together…and punctuated, at last, with a single unanswerable letter.
It’s a feeling that I think everybody who knows a friend or family member who commits suicide feels. The feeling of guilt has this to do with it—you say, “If I hadn’t said thus-and-so, if I’d been more sympathetic, if I hadn’t sent that book back to Bob, if I’d gone by that morning, if I’d answered his letter”—all these things that you say. It doesn’t matter that maybe your reasoning mind can tell you “Oh, well, this would not have done it”—you still think it.
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.
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.
Most of Moore’s letters to Robert E. Howard do not appear to survive, at least not beyond those preserved among Howard’s papers:
[Gil Kane]: I made a deal with the agent who handled the Robert E. Howard estate. The agent’s name was Oscar Friend – he was an old pulp writer and, in fact, he gave me a box to take home which contained everything they owned that Howard had ever done. I found original manuscripts there… letters from H.P. Lovecraft to Howard… also letters from… who was that wonderful writer? She married a science fiction writer called Henry Kuttner.
Dave: That’s C.L. Moore, isn’t it?
Gil: C.L. Moore! Of course! She was working a bank as a teller and she wrote letters to Howard that he kept – they were the most beautiful, poetic, lovely, intimate letters… they were sensational. They talked about how she wanted to write. I went through every scrap of paper in that box and held onto it for about nine months – I thought that Friend had possibly forgotten about it but he didn’t. What happened was Friend became quite ill and the Howard estate’s bank wanted a new agent for the material and they got Glen Lord who was a fan down in Texas. He took things over and he wanted the box back. —Steve Whitaker & Dave Proctor, “Interview with Gil Kane” (1986)
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.