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

Robert Howard's birthplace, Peaster, Texas, is located in the Palo Pinto hills south of Fort Worth. These days you will be hard-pressed to find much of great interest about the early-day wanderings of Dr. Howard's family as it moved from one small community in need of a doctor to another--Bagwell, Seminole, Bronte, Cross Cut--before settling in Cross Plains in 1919 when son Robert was 13. It was there, in the windblown isolation of farm and ranch country, that he would spend the remaining 17 years of his short life, dreaming and writing of a time of bloody violence, romance, and rebellion. Sitting at a typewriter when most his age were plowing fields, picking cotton, or earning short wages down at Higginbotham's Hardware, often writing around the clock, sometimes yelling out the dialogue of his characters as he hammered at the keys, he frantically produced as many as 12,000 words in a single day. He made few friends and demonstrated little social grace when he did venture beyond the confines of the small frame house he and his parents, Isaac and Hester, called home.

There he wrote short stories, novellas, and poems--violent and erotic, bizarre and fanciful, always action-filled--that not even his neighbors read. His publishers were not the leading magazines of the time but, rather, the ever-growing list of cheaply produced weekly and monthly pulps that sold for a nickel or dime, featuring colorful covers that seldom failed to picture a scantily clad damsel in distress. The sword-and-sorcery fiction, for which he would become most famous, was done for such publications as Weird Tales, Avon Fantasy, Ghost Stories, Strange Tales, and Magic Carpet; he wrote Westerns for Argosy All-Story Weekly and Star Western; boxing fiction for Fight Stories and Dime Sports; and whodunits for Strange Detective and Startling Mysteries. There were even a few stories, written under various pen names, for such ribald, sold-under-the-counter magazines as Spicy Adventure. And there was his steady stream of dark verse, much of which found its way into publication despite little or no compensation.

A Conan comic from the '70s.
A Conan comic from the '70s.
Howard's restored home in Cross Plains.
Pat Stowers
Howard's restored home in Cross Plains.

By the Depression '30s, Howard, the local curiosity, was among the most financially solvent residents of Cross Plains, earning about $2,000 annually. It was not, however, his bank account or literary accomplishments that fueled his local reputation. Rather, it was his odd behavior.

"He just didn't have much in common with folks around here," remembers Jack Scott, the lone surviving resident who actually knew Howard. A 20-year-old reporter for the weekly Cross Plains Review then, Scott remembers the writer as "a big strong guy who looked like a boxer." "But," he says, "I never remember him getting into any fights. He didn't play ball. Didn't go to the dances. He just didn't like many people."

As a high-school student Howard did little to distinguish himself; his closest brush with higher education came when he took courses in shorthand and bookkeeping during a one-semester stay at Howard Payne College (now University) in nearby Brownwood. On occasion he did hold down an odd job while waiting for his writing career to evolve: He worked for a time delivering mail for the post office but couldn't get along with the postmaster; same with the owner of the dry-goods store who briefly employed him. As a law-office stenographer he was, by his own judgment, untidy, absent-minded, and inefficient. He fared no better as a rod carrier for a local oil-seeking geologist.

With few friends, Howard wandered the hardscrabble landscape of Callahan County with his dog Patches, rarely missed a movie at the downtown Liberty Theater, occasionally hitched a ride to Abilene to attend a boxing exhibition or a football game, and used his photographic memory to store away plots of the books he steadily checked out of the local library. Legend has it that when there were no more books to read in his hometown, Howard made late-night break-ins of libraries in neighboring communities to "borrow" more books--always careful, so the story goes, to return them once they'd been read.

Clearly, Doc Howard's boy marched to his own beat. To a Cross Plains teacher and aspiring writer named Novalyne Price, with whom he was romantically involved for a short time, he confided that many of his stories and characters were products of vivid dreams that had visited his sleep since childhood. In her autobiographical recollection of their friendship, One Who Walks Alone (which was later adapted for the movie The Whole Wide World), she remembers a gentler, more sensitive Robert Howard who loved to talk of history and politics, poetry and philosophy. He was, she wrote, more shy than blusterous, far more gentlemanly than his writings might suggest.

There is the story, for example, of Howard's reaction to the death of his beloved dog. Grief-stricken when it became apparent the aging Patches was dying, Robert left town for several days, unable to bear the deathwatch. Only after his father had buried the dog beneath a pecan tree in the back yard did his son return home.

Then there was Howard's Oedipus-like relationship with his long-ill mother, who lavished every ounce of her protective attention on him. To those who knew the family, it was obvious that Hester Howard was closer to her son than she was to her husband. As Robert Howard once wrote in a letter to a fellow author, his mother "would deliver meals to my bedroom and carefully divert the slightest distractions when I was writing." She routinely read his manuscripts and delivered high praise for every word. Her conversations with neighbors always focused on the boundless pride she felt for her son and his remarkable talents.

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