By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"The devotion some of these people feel toward Robert Howard is amazing," says Loving. "They come from all over the United States and Europe. A couple of years ago, there was this sweet little French girl who spent every penny she had getting here, then had no money to get home. She wound up staying in my home for a couple of weeks before her family sent her a ticket. And there was this young man from somewhere in England who must have stayed a month or more. He'd get up every morning and sit for hours on the sidewalk in front of the hardware store. I finally asked him one day what he was doing, and he explained to me that he was just trying to 'feel the place' where Robert Howard lived."
It occurred to me as I followed her through the old frame house, listening to the stories she has told countless times, that I was simply following in the footsteps of the curious who had come before me. I tried to imagine Robert Howard seated at the typewriter I knew wasn't his; to visualize him at the kitchen table, waiting as his mother prepared dinner on the old gas stove; or standing at the front door, looking out onto the front porch to invite Novalyne Price to come in and sit with him in the living room with its laced curtains and doily-draped sofa.
Briefly, Billie Ruth Loving's tour had taken me back to another time and place.
Later, we drove downtown, where librarian Cherry Schults showed me the collection of Howard books that now fills a corner shelf and brought from the safe the original manuscripts of short stories and poems he'd written. "We've got a number of kids in town who come in to check out his books," Schults says. "Robert E. Howard now has a whole new generation of fans here in Cross Plains."
And so, in a few hours' time, I had seen all there was to see.
As I drove through the West Texas dusk, leaving the newly flickering lights of Cross Plains behind, it occurred to me there really had been no great truths to find there, no hidden magic that had inspired and given rise to the legend of the late Robert E. Howard. I saw nothing in the vast countryside of endless droughts, mesquite, and tumbleweeds that might have suggested the mythical lands wherein his most popular fiction was set; learned of no local mores or history of troublesome social climate that would have bred the anger and bloody vengeance of the barbaric warriors Howard created. It was, I decided, not even the big-sky isolation and rural loneliness that had fueled such a rich and vivid imagination.
All those secrets I'd hoped to learn, it occurred to me, were forever locked away in the mind of a man who, depending on one's viewpoint, was either madman or genius, horribly tormented or remarkably blessed--or, just maybe, a little of each.