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

--L. Sprague de Camp

That "lasting enthusiasm" is evident in the remarkable zeal of Howard collectors who network via fan-club magazines, dozens of Web sites and, most recently, Internet trading posts such as e-Bay. "The Internet," says Plano-based patent attorney Paul Herman, a collector for 20 years, "has opened a whole new world to people looking for an old copy of Weird Tales or a first edition of one of his books. Time was when you went to collectors' conventions or networked with other collectors by mail or phone. Now, any evening, you can sit in front of your computer and find just about anything related to Robert E. Howard that you're looking for."

What you find, though, is found at constantly spiraling prices. "There was a time when I'd find a pulp magazine I didn't have," he says, "and would pay $20 to $30 for it. The prices you see now are in the $100s." The price tag on a copy of Always Comes Evening, a small book of Howard's verse, is now up to $500--if you can find someone willing to sell one. Several years ago, a first edition of Howard's first book, A Gent From Bear Creek, was supposedly sold for $3,000. If you can locate one today, Herman says, the sky's the limit.

Billie Ruth Loving is Cross Plains' expert on Howard, as well as caretaker of his home.
Billie Ruth Loving is Cross Plains' expert on Howard, as well as caretaker of his home.

Checking recently, he says, he learned of only a half-dozen copies in existence. Agent Glenn Lord has one, and there is one in the main library of London; one in the national library of Edinburgh, Scotland; and one, donated by the Kuykendall family, in the Ranger (Texas) Junior College library. "I'm told," Herman says, "that two copies have been sold in the United States in the last 15 years. One went for $3,000, the other for $4,000, and neither even had the original dust jacket."

Herman, who says his own collection now includes more than 300 Howard items, knows of no one with a complete set of the author's writings. "There are something in the neighborhood of 400 stories out there, some originally published in the most obscure magazines and chap books you can imagine," he says. Recently he traveled to the Houston Public Library to view the lone existing copy of a 1931 edition of Texaco Star, a house organ Texaco once distributed free to its customers. The publication included a Howard-bylined story titled "Ghost of Camp Colorado."

He also stopped in at the Howard Payne library in Brownwood, where he was surprised to find the pieces Howard wrote while he was a student there in back issues of the school's newspaper. Herman made copies of each of the stories, whose copyright had long lapsed into public domain, and reprinted them in a numbered, limited-edition chapbook titled The Complete Yellow Jacket. Herman sold most of his 100 copies to friends and fellow collectors at a reasonable $10 per copy. "The other night on e-Bay," he says, "I saw one for sale, listed at $90."

And while he is secretive about the value of his own collection, Herman admits that some of his rarest items are kept in a bank safe-deposit box.

T.J. Johnson, owner of the Houston science-fiction and fantasy bookstore Third Planet, says he has seen a steady growth in interest in the works of Howard in recent years. "A first edition of Skull-Face and Other Stories, originally priced at five dollars, now sells for $750 or more," he says. "The prices have gone crazy."

And the search is never-ending. Fans, Johnson says, have now become aware that in the '60s there were 45 editions of a Spanish-language Conan comic book published in Mexico, predating the first U.S. comic by 10 years. "Word of something like that just sets off another quest by the collectors," he says. A Howard fan since he began reading Conan books while in the military, Johnson has a personal collection that includes first editions of Howard books published in 30 languages.

In Oakland, California, meanwhile, collector Jay Corrinet, president of a security-consulting firm, continues to add to a 2,000-item collection of Howard memorabilia that includes a one-of-a-kind item. In his possession is the 1928 vintage Underwood typewriter on which Howard wrote. A former federal law enforcement officer, Corrinet took extraordinary measures to be certain the typewriter had, in fact, belonged to Howard. Securing photocopies of several original Howard manuscripts that are locked away in a safe in the Cross Plains public library, he took them and the typewriter to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, where forensic experts verified that the manuscript pages had been produced on the typewriter. To date, Corrinet, a collector for a quarter century, has turned down offers of as much as $25,000 for it.

Not long ago, he says, he received a call asking about his interest in purchasing the gun Howard used to kill himself. The pistol, originally owned by a Brownwood friend of Howard's, was returned some time after the suicide and has remained in the family since. Neither Corrinet nor several others who have been contacted have shown any interest in adding such a macabre touch to their collections.

Herman estimates that the number of serious Howard collectors is somewhere in the 300-to-400 range in the United States, with an even larger number scattered throughout Europe.

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