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

According to L. Sprague de Camp's 1983 Howard biography, Dark Valley Destiny, Hester Howard even went to great lengths to short-circuit the budding romance between her son and Price. It was not uncommon for her to coolly inform Novalyne that Robert was "out of town" when she phoned or appeared at the Howards' front door. Only later would Price learn from Robert that he had been home, in his room writing, all along. Eventually, Price would write in her own book, it was Mrs. Howard who succeeded in driving her away despite the fact that she had fallen in love with the odd-ball author.

When Hester Howard's lengthy bout with tuberculosis reached the critical stage, it was Robert, not his doctor father, who maintained a round-the-clock vigil at her bedside. Finally, she lapsed into a coma from which she would not awake. On the evening of June 10, 1936, Robert Howard, then 30 years old, was told by an attending nurse that his mother would soon die. Early the following morning, he walked to his car in the back yard, pulled a revolver from the glove compartment, and fatally shot himself in the head.

Inside, still in his typewriter, were the final words he would ever write:

The author wrote up to 12,000 words a day in his study.
The author wrote up to 12,000 words a day in his study.
A younger Robert E. Howard on the back porch of his family's home; inset, Howard in late 1934.
Pat Stowers
A younger Robert E. Howard on the back porch of his family's home; inset, Howard in late 1934.

All fled, all done

So lift me on the pyre;

The feast is over,

And the lamps expire.

Angrily scattered throughout his small room like so much confetti were manuscript pages of stories, poems, and letters he had written.

Hester Howard died the day after her son's suicide. On the afternoon of June 14--a rainy Sunday--they were buried side by side in the Greenleaf Cemetery in nearby Brownwood after the first double funeral service in Cross Plains' history.

By all rights, that should have ended the creative journey of Robert Erwin Howard. Instead, it was just the beginning.

"The character and attainments of [Robert] Howard were wholly unique. He was, above everything else, a lover of the simpler, older world of barbarian and pioneer days, when courage and strength took the place of subtlety..."

--H.P. Lovecraft

Distraught over the loss of his family, Dr. Howard sought to keep his son's memory alive by donating his manuscripts, his meager personal library, and copies of the numerous magazines in which his stories had appeared to the Howard Payne College library. Only later, after discovering that a librarian who deemed the lurid covers and violence-driven writing unfit for public display had hidden the materials away in a dark and dank basement, did he retrieve them.

Aware that an aspiring young writer in California named E. Hoffmann Price had once visited Cross Plains to express his admiration for his son's work, Dr. Howard packed up all of the papers left behind and shipped them to him. There they remained stored in a trunk, protected but virtually forgotten.

An occasional Howard story--a few submitted before his death, others reprints of things published earlier--would find its way into print. In fact, his first book, a collection of his Western pulp stories titled A Gent From Brush Creek, was published by Herbert Jenkins of London a year after his death and sold modestly well. A second, Skull-Face and Other Stories, was released by Arkham House in hardcover in 1947, but its 3,000 copies sold slowly and only to a small group of Howard fans left over from his Weird Tales glory days.

The brief time of Robert Howard's fame, it seemed, had quickly begun to tick away. A late-in-life decision by his father, however, would wind the clock again.

Shortly before his death in 1944, Dr. Howard, suffering with diabetes and cataracts, approached Dr. Pere Kuykendall, a colleague in nearby Ranger, Texas, with a proposition. In exchange for Dr. Howard's living out his remaining days working and living at Kuykendall's clinic, he promised to will all his belongings to his employer. Aware that his infirm friend was physically and emotionally spent, Kuykendall agreed, never expecting that Isaac Howard's estate might actually be of any substantial worth.

Certainly, he had no idea at the time that among the things that would be willed to him were the rights to the strange works of his old friend's writing son.

It was not until the early '60s that L. Sprague de Camp, a gifted young Pennsylvania novelist now leading a reclusive life in Plano, discovered Robert E. Howard and Conan and set about to resurrect the legend of the all-but-forgotten author and his most famous hero. On assignment from Gnome Press, a small publisher of fantasy and science fiction, he polished several previously unpublished Howard manuscripts, then set out to complete stories the late author had left unfinished or had written only brief outlines for. In time, de Camp had not only breathed new life into Howard's career but also turned Conan into an industry. Such was the market for paperback Conan tales that dozens of writers were ultimately hired to turn out new novels "based on the character created by Robert E. Howard." The bylines of authors Bjorn Nyberg, Lin Carter, and current fantasy best-seller Robert Jordan are among those that have appeared on the more than 50 Conan books that have reached the marketplace.

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