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

All inspired by the talent of a lonely, misunderstood young man who lived a short, tormented life in a desolate road-stop in Texas three-quarters of a century ago.


"I have lived in the Southwest all my life, yet most of my dreams are laid in cold, giant lands of icy wastes and gloomy skies, and of wild, windswept fens and wilderness over which sweep great sea-winds..." --from an autobiographical essay by Robert E. Howard

Although fascinated by Howard's triumph and tragedy for much of my adult life, I should admit that I've never really been a devoted fan of his writings. It is the man himself and his genius to create that has long interested me. I've wondered at his legendary output, puzzled over the source of his inspiration, and marveled at the still-growing popularity of his works.

That, then, was why I was standing patiently at the back door of the restored frame house on the edge of Cross Plains, waiting as 80-year-old Billie Ruth Loving, today the local Howard expert and unofficial caretaker of the town's most famous landmark, searched for a key. Only a few feet from where we stood was the spot on which Robert Howard had taken his own life. Nearby was the sprawling pecan tree under which Dr. Howard had so long ago buried his son's beloved dog.

"For years," the retired librarian says, "people would come to Cross Plains, wanting to know about Robert E. Howard, wanting to see where he grew up. We had a particularly large number of visitors back in 1986, on the 50th anniversary of his death. It was as if some kind of pilgrimage had been organized. But the truth is, we didn't have much to show them."

All that was before a local organization calling itself Project Pride set its mind to finding some way to put Cross Plains back on the map. Neighboring Cisco had done well by promoting the fact that its old Mobley Hotel was the first ever owned and operated by Conrad Hilton. Why, then, couldn't Cross Plains draw attention and new traffic to itself as the home of Robert E. Howard? Maybe even call itself the "Home of Conan the Barbarian."

Which is exactly what it would eventually do.

The old house where the Howards had lived was purchased by the library (with funds donated by the heirs to the Howard estate), then turned over to Project Pride for refurbishing. Loving, charged with the job of returning it to the look of the '20s and '30s, made numerous trips to nearby Abilene for the purchase of paint and wallpaper and to search antique shops for furniture and appliances that had been in vogue more than a half century earlier. Hardwood floors were polished, and the outside received a spit-and-polish facelift. A local carpenter provided a new white picket fence. A Howard fan in Missouri volunteered to write the application that ultimately resulted in the house's being included in the prestigious National Registry of Homes.

Learning of the ambitious venture, Howard revivalist-author de Camp, a collector of memorabilia himself, visited Cross Plains and donated a few things he'd obtained from former neighbors to whom Dr. Howard had given a number of household items before moving away: a small porcelain pitcher that had belonged to Hester Howard and a gaily painted plaster bust of Cleopatra that a teenage Robert Howard had brought home from a family vacation in New Orleans. The items went into place in the house along with several old black-and-white photographs of the Howard family. An acquaintance of Mrs. Howard's returned her old foot-pedal sewing machine so that it might be displayed in the room it originally occupied.

In the tiny room where Howard lived and worked is a facsimile of the old typewriter, a piece of paper spooled into it where the last lines of dark verse he typed are replicated. On a nearby shelf are copies of several books that were part of his personal library.

Visiting the house, roaming from bedroom to kitchen, through its lengthy hallway to the sleeping porch and back to the front room, I was reminded of bygone visits to the home of elderly grandparents.

"We didn't want to turn it into a traditional museum," Loving explains. "We wanted only to try and restore it to what it was like when Howard lived here."

And so there is finally a local attraction for the devotees who continue to come. In the second week of June 1991, coinciding with the date of his untimely death, the inaugural Cross Plains Howard Festival, complete with guided tours, barbecue dinners, and guest lecturers, was held. And it's been done annually since.

On June 9 and 10, the community will again open its doors. There will be tours of the Howard home, visits to his gravesite 30 miles away in Brownwood, a showing of the movie The Whole Wide World, and an exhibition of 38 original Robert E. Howard manuscripts at the Cross Plains library. Artist Gary Gianni, illustrator of the recently published Solomon Kane book, will be the keynote speaker at a Saturday-evening dinner.

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