Howard's End

Carlton Stowers goes in search of the dark muse that inspired pulp-fiction legend Robert E. Howard, the West Texas recluse who created Conan the Barbarian

"I was the first to light the torch of literature in this part of the country, however small, frail and easily extinguished that flame may be..." --from a 1933 letter written by Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft

At first blush it is little more than parched flatland, colored only by rugged mesquites and prickly pear cacti, a region where tiny towns like Cross Plains struggle to survive and weary cotton farmers coax small crops from rain-starved fields while endlessly reminiscing about the long-bygone days of oil-boom prosperity. Traveling west on Interstate 20, out of Fort Worth, past Weatherford, one soon arrives at the timeless epicenter of rural West Texas, leaving modern buildings, urban angst, and traffic jams far in the distance. Its slow-paced lifestyle is a world away; in actual miles it is but a quick day trip from downtown Dallas.

What had summoned me to this cliché, to the heartland of my youth, was not nostalgic wandering or modern-day pulse-taking but, rather, a half-century-old secret still hidden from literary scholars, readers, and book collectors worldwide.

What I sought in Cross Plains was the answer to questions no one has posed, certainly no one recently, but questions that have gnawed at me nonetheless: What was it here that could have inspired one of the most prolific, imaginative, and best-read authors in Texas history--a man who quite literally created a new genre in popular fiction? And why, despite his having an avid following decades after his death in 1936, have so few in his home state heard of him while other writers from the neighborhood are praised and presented prizes?

Just down the road, Katherine Anne Porter, author of Ship of Fools, was raised in a two-room log cabin in the Brown County hamlet of Indian Creek and went on to earn a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. A few miles to the east is what remains of the community of Putnam, birthplace of Larry L. King, who gave Broadway The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Abilene produced celebrated Texas historian A.C. Greene. San Angelo, not far away, is the home of award-winning Western writer Elmer Kelton.

Why, then, has Robert E. Howard, one of the state's bona fide literary pioneers, remained more cult figure than recognized man of letters--despite the facts that millions of his books have sold here and abroad, and that movies based on the characters he created have generated huge box-office profits and impressive television ratings? The best-kept secret in the history of Texas literature, this strange, introverted country doctor's son who spent the Depression days writing pulp-magazine stories of faraway lands and long-ago times--sword-and-sorcery fantasy, the genre experts call it--is oft-mentioned in the same breath with H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Howard has even been the subject of a couple of relatively obscure biographies and a charming independently produced movie (The Whole Wide World), yet his name rarely rings a bell with the book-reading masses.

Beyond the city limits of little Cross Plains, population 1,030--which remembers him each June with a weekend celebration--he remains a virtual stranger. Even the Texas Institute of Letters, whose sole purpose it is to ballyhoo the state's literati, has never seen fit to grant him membership.

His legacy, then, is not in the name he carved for himself but, instead, in the larger-than-life characters that burst from his old Underwood typewriter in the '20s and '30s at the pulp magazines' going rate of a penny per word: Conan the Barbarian, a mighty sword-wielding warrior who fought bloody battles in an imagined land at the dawn of civilization; Solomon Kane, a 16th-century adventurer devoted to righting wrong; King Kull, a stouthearted soldier raised by wolves on the mythical continent of Thuria who destroyed all who blocked his way to the throne. And while one might never have read a word Howard wrote, it is all but impossible to escape the impact of his brief but incredibly prolific output. Movies (two of which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan, one in which Kevin Sorbo played Kull, and one featuring Brigitte Nielsen as a one-time Howard short-story character, Red Sonja), books published in dozens of languages, an animated television series, a newspaper comic strip, comic books, trading cards, posters, and action figures have turned the long-dead Robert E. Howard into a multimillion-dollar industry that began in 1924 when, at age 18, he sold his first story to a publication called Weird Tales for $16.

Most who knew him in life deemed the title of the magazine to which he made that early sale apropos. "Weird" was one of the kinder descriptions of the burly Howard who once walked the unpaved streets of Cross Plains, often shadow-boxing and talking to himself as he went, sometimes wearing a huge Mexican sombrero and a far-away look. Those a bit harsher referred to him in whispered tones simply as "Doc Howard's crazy son."

None, of course, grasped the international impact this solitary and ultimately suicidal young man would one day have. The inspiration of this man, then, is what I've come to determine--as well as discover, I hope, the reason for his anonymity. I've researched his works, his life, and his tragic relationships. I've looked for insight by talking to his most avid fans, those who keep the Howard memorabilia industry humming. Now, unsatisfied, I've driven to this place in hopes of summoning the capricious spirit that helped him create warriors from West Texas dust. Ultimately, I want to measure the dark muse that, in a simpler time and place, took Robert E. Howard far away into the strange fantasylands he created.

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