Sunday, March 20, 2016

New Evidence on the Posthumous Editing of Robert E. Howard’s ALMURIC

In the April 1939 issue of Weird Tales, under the heading “Coming Next Month,” there was an announcement by editor Farnsworth Wright of the forthcoming publication of a new story by Robert E. Howard, who had killed himself nearly three years earlier.  It reads, in part:
Weird Tales, April 1939 blurb
Robert E. Howard, at the time of his tragic death, was working on a new novel for Weird Tales. He had completed a rough first draft, and nearly completed a revision which was to be his final version. . . .  So engrossing is this story, Almuric, that Weird Tales would not be playing fair with you, the readers, if we did not let you see it. Therefore we have pieced together the nearly completed final draft that Howard wrote with the final pages of Howard’s rough first draft, which contains a smashing denouement.  (page 152)

This statement leaves open several questions. Who did the editing?  Why?  And what precisely was done to Howard’s texts? 

The two manuscripts of Almuric—like those of all of Howard’s contributions to Weird Tales—do not survive.  The mysterious situation of Almuric has been explored by a number of Howard scholars, and the consensus opinion seems to be that expressed by Mark Finn in his Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard (updated and expanded second edition, 2011), when he writes of Almuric that it was “unfinished when Robert was alive and most likely completed by legendary pulp writer and friend of Otis Kline [Howard’s agent], Otto Binder” (page 379). The argument leading to this conclusion was made by Morgan Holmes in his invaluable article, “The First Posthumous Collaborator,” published in the final issue (December 2008) of The Cimmerian (pages 17-24).

Holmes makes many significant points—that Wright is probably guilty of editorial fabrication when claiming that Almuric was being written for Weird Tales (according to Holmes’s analysis it probably dates to early 1934, two years before Howard’s death); and that  the ending seems “almost criminally anti-Howardian” and that it exhibits “a sudden sea-change of style and theme of a sort unique in all of Howard’s work—the last chapter blithely undoes it all, giving us a finale filled with peace, brotherhood, and eternal friendship among formerly fierce, barbaric enemies” (page 17).  Holmes argues that the person who edited the text was unlikely to be either Farnsworth Wright (perhaps due to advancing Parkinson’s), or Otis Adelbert Kline (who took only a ten percent commission as agent, and not the fifty percent commission he would have taken had he done the job), and considers some other authors, settling at last on Kline’s friend, Otto Binder, primarily for stylistic reasons. 

The recent discovery of a typed letter settles the question of who, and some of the reasons for  why. In brief, it was Farnsworth Wright who did the editing.  On January 4, 1939, Wright wrote to Sam Moskowitz, giving information on future stories in Weird Tales, noting:

Beginning in the May issue, we are printing a posthumous interplanetary novel by Robert E. Howard, entitled “Almuric.” At the time of his death, Mr. Howard had completed a first draft of the story, and had done the greater part of the second draft. The novel is so striking that I thought it would be unfair to our readers if we did not give them a chance to read this. So I pieced together an ending from the first draft and used it to complete the second draft to make a complete story.

So there we have it. Who?  Farnsworth Wright.  Why?  Ostensibly to share the story, which Wright apparently admired, with the Weird Tales readership, but doubtless also to be able to parade Robert E. Howard’s name and writing in the magazine once more.

What precisely Wright did to Howard’s text will likely never be known.  Howard often wrote multiple drafts of his stories, so the idea of a second draft being a final draft is not necessarily true.  Howard seems to have abandoned the story himself, for whatever reasons, and moved on to other things.  One aspect of the ending (the strong-man-gets-the-pretty-girl) is at least foreshadowed throughout the text as published.  Almuric as a story is somewhat indebted to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and such an ending is not unlike what is found in Burroughs (and also found in the pastiches of Burroughs by Howard’s agent, Otis Adelbert Kline). Perhaps Howard originally wrote such an ending in his rough first draft, and as he worked on his second draft he could not see his way to a more typical Howardian ending, and thus the story was abandoned. 

The easy solution would be to blame the editor for the ending, as Holmes does primarily on stylistic points, but there is no actual evidence that Wright wrote or tampered much with the text.  By Wright’s own words there was a complete first draft, and a “nearly completed” (per the note in Weird Tales) second draft, or one with “the greater part” (per Wright’s letter to Moskowitz) of the second draft being written.  In both sources Wright states that he “pieced together” an ending from the first draft to complete the second draft. On the other hand, Holmes’s stylistic analysis of the final chapter is cogent and persuasive. Unfortunately the facts of whatever actually happened in the editing process are apparently lost to history.