The last entry in the comprehensive, and I must admit, amusing list was “your trunk stories.” I’d never heard the term before but I felt I got the jist of it from the context. However for the sake of clarity I used my Google-fu to find the following definition from Preditors & Editors.
Trunk Story: A story that's been submitted virtually everywhere and been rejected leaving the writer with little to do but store it away. There it sits until you're famous or a new market opens where you can submit it.
Now as an author with a total of 3 rejection letters under my belt I can’t help but feeling my first two short stories are already destined for the dark, moldering tomb of some metaphorical steamer trunk. Yet I try to remind myself that writing is a journey and fraught with a myriad of twists and turns that make up any good story.
Which brings me to a tale about a trunk story that not only managed to escape the dust bin but to go on to spawn one of the most revered characters in the Sword and Sorcery genre.
And so the unwanted story sat for the next two years as Howard continued to write and publish other tales. Then in the spring of 1932 he decided to dust it off, give the story a different subplot, added some Lovecraftian horror and introduced an iconic character to the world of fantasy.
Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed,sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."—The Nemedian Chronicles
Howard re-titled the story The Phoenix on the Sword and like the fiery bird of myth his tale was reborn from the ashes. He submitted it to Weird Tales magazine and after editor-in-chief Farnsworth Wright sent Howard a letter asking him to touch up the story and then resubmit it. Howard did just that and The Phoenix on the Sword was published in the 1932 December issue.
Project Gutenberg Australia has a copy of the story here.
What's truly amazing is how constructive Farnsworth Wright's criticism was in his letter to Howard. True to Neil Gaiman's maxim, he only tells Howard what isn't working in the story.
If we could only all be as lucky to receive such a in depth analysis of our rejected stories from an editor. And ironically the letter opens with a rejection of Howard's, The Frost-Giant's Daughter, which he had originally centered around a young Conan. Here Howard did the reverse, and swapped out Conan for Amra of Akbitana, then re-titled it The Gods of the North. The original Conan version would go unpublished until the Conan's renewed popularity of in the 70s.
- You can read the full letter below -
Howard's characters and world-building evolved as he continued to write. Kull and the Thuvian age in which he ruled was a precursor to the Hyborian Age of Conan , both literally and figuratively.
"KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of...
This line establishes a continuity between the two characters and gives Conan's world a more rounded, pre-established history than it's predecessor.
With the rejection of the Kull story Howard was given the seed for a character and fantasy world that far surpassed the original and that's something worth noting. Of course Howard's trunk story may be the exception to a rule, but it comforting to know that some literary orphans can still find a home.