As I’m planning to assign Robert E. Howard’s 1928 Kull story “By This Axe I Rule!” for my philosophy of law class in the fall (yes, really), I was comparing the version in my Kull anthology with one I found online. The former is obviously Howard’s original version or close to it, while the latter (scanning errors apart) has clearly undergone well-meaning editing, slight but pervasive, to tame some of Howard’s eccentricities of punctuation and usage.
While many of the revisions are improvements (including a catch of Howard’s losing track of how many assassins were supposed to be at the door, and of the direction in which Ka-nu’s Pictish escort was heading), on the whole it seems to me that the unknown editor had a tin ear for Howard’s language, and the comparison has given me new respect for Howard’s craft as a writer.
Two constructions in particular seem to have attracted the editor’s disfavour – what I’ll call the fast transition (“X happened and then Y happened”) and the slow transition (“X happened. And then Y happened”). In nearly all cases, both kinds of transition get changed to the more grammatically conventional “X happened, and then Y happened” – which I’ll call the medium-speed transition.
But although some of Howard’s punctuational choices admittedly seem a bit random, I don’t think there was anything random in his deployment of fast and slow transitions. (In this story, at least. I haven’t looked through Howard’s other stories with an eye to fast and slow transitions; sufficit diei.) His general preference for fast transitions fits the fast pace of the story; it’s like a cinematic tracking shot. But when he switches to a slow transition there’s a good reason for it. A good example is when Kull tells Seno val Dor: “I am sorry. But I cannot help you.” The editor changes this to “I am sorry, but I cannot help you,” but rushing through the apology like this makes Kull seem dismissive; Howard’s version, pausing on the “I am sorry,” gives it the weight of sincerity. (I would go back and find more of the examples I noticed, but I am too lazy.)
One reason I think Howard’s preference for fast and slow transitions over medium-speed ones was intentional is that he symbolically incorporates it into his description of Kull:
There was nothing deliberate or measured about his motions – either he was perfectly at rest – still as a bronze statue, or else he was in motion, with that catlike quickness which blurred the sight that tried to follow his movements.
Ascalante leaped as a wolf leaps – halted almost in mid-air with the unbelievable speed which characterized him ….
(In that last one it’s almost as though Howard is foreseeing bullet time.)