By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I was the first to light the torch of literature in this part of the country, however small, frail and easily extinguished that flame may be..." --from a 1933 letter written by Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft
At first blush it is little more than parched flatland, colored only by rugged mesquites and prickly pear cacti, a region where tiny towns like Cross Plains struggle to survive and weary cotton farmers coax small crops from rain-starved fields while endlessly reminiscing about the long-bygone days of oil-boom prosperity. Traveling west on Interstate 20, out of Fort Worth, past Weatherford, one soon arrives at the timeless epicenter of rural West Texas, leaving modern buildings, urban angst, and traffic jams far in the distance. Its slow-paced lifestyle is a world away; in actual miles it is but a quick day trip from downtown Dallas.
What had summoned me to this cliché, to the heartland of my youth, was not nostalgic wandering or modern-day pulse-taking but, rather, a half-century-old secret still hidden from literary scholars, readers, and book collectors worldwide.
What I sought in Cross Plains was the answer to questions no one has posed, certainly no one recently, but questions that have gnawed at me nonetheless: What was it here that could have inspired one of the most prolific, imaginative, and best-read authors in Texas history--a man who quite literally created a new genre in popular fiction? And why, despite his having an avid following decades after his death in 1936, have so few in his home state heard of him while other writers from the neighborhood are praised and presented prizes?
Just down the road, Katherine Anne Porter, author of Ship of Fools, was raised in a two-room log cabin in the Brown County hamlet of Indian Creek and went on to earn a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. A few miles to the east is what remains of the community of Putnam, birthplace of Larry L. King, who gave Broadway The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Abilene produced celebrated Texas historian A.C. Greene. San Angelo, not far away, is the home of award-winning Western writer Elmer Kelton.
Why, then, has Robert E. Howard, one of the state's bona fide literary pioneers, remained more cult figure than recognized man of letters--despite the facts that millions of his books have sold here and abroad, and that movies based on the characters he created have generated huge box-office profits and impressive television ratings? The best-kept secret in the history of Texas literature, this strange, introverted country doctor's son who spent the Depression days writing pulp-magazine stories of faraway lands and long-ago times--sword-and-sorcery fantasy, the genre experts call it--is oft-mentioned in the same breath with H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Howard has even been the subject of a couple of relatively obscure biographies and a charming independently produced movie (The Whole Wide World), yet his name rarely rings a bell with the book-reading masses.
Beyond the city limits of little Cross Plains, population 1,030--which remembers him each June with a weekend celebration--he remains a virtual stranger. Even the Texas Institute of Letters, whose sole purpose it is to ballyhoo the state's literati, has never seen fit to grant him membership.
His legacy, then, is not in the name he carved for himself but, instead, in the larger-than-life characters that burst from his old Underwood typewriter in the '20s and '30s at the pulp magazines' going rate of a penny per word: Conan the Barbarian, a mighty sword-wielding warrior who fought bloody battles in an imagined land at the dawn of civilization; Solomon Kane, a 16th-century adventurer devoted to righting wrong; King Kull, a stouthearted soldier raised by wolves on the mythical continent of Thuria who destroyed all who blocked his way to the throne. And while one might never have read a word Howard wrote, it is all but impossible to escape the impact of his brief but incredibly prolific output. Movies (two of which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan, one in which Kevin Sorbo played Kull, and one featuring Brigitte Nielsen as a one-time Howard short-story character, Red Sonja), books published in dozens of languages, an animated television series, a newspaper comic strip, comic books, trading cards, posters, and action figures have turned the long-dead Robert E. Howard into a multimillion-dollar industry that began in 1924 when, at age 18, he sold his first story to a publication called Weird Tales for $16.
Most who knew him in life deemed the title of the magazine to which he made that early sale apropos. "Weird" was one of the kinder descriptions of the burly Howard who once walked the unpaved streets of Cross Plains, often shadow-boxing and talking to himself as he went, sometimes wearing a huge Mexican sombrero and a far-away look. Those a bit harsher referred to him in whispered tones simply as "Doc Howard's crazy son."
None, of course, grasped the international impact this solitary and ultimately suicidal young man would one day have. The inspiration of this man, then, is what I've come to determine--as well as discover, I hope, the reason for his anonymity. I've researched his works, his life, and his tragic relationships. I've looked for insight by talking to his most avid fans, those who keep the Howard memorabilia industry humming. Now, unsatisfied, I've driven to this place in hopes of summoning the capricious spirit that helped him create warriors from West Texas dust. Ultimately, I want to measure the dark muse that, in a simpler time and place, took Robert E. Howard far away into the strange fantasylands he created.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Also figuring prominently in the resurrection was Pasadena, Texas, paper-mill employee Glenn Lord, whose efforts broadened the market for Howard material and advanced the heirs to the author's work from financial windfall into a full-blown cash tornado.
"I began reading the Conan stories in the early '50s," Lord says, "and really enjoyed them. At the time there was very little known about Robert Howard, so I set out to learn as much as I could and see if I might be able to find other things he'd written." Lord soon began locating and buying copies of the old, long-gone pulps that had printed Howard stories. In time his search led him to the trunk in the California home of E. Hoffmann Price. The writer happily turned it over to him, and among the items Lord found inside were a number of unpublished manuscripts, including a half-dozen forgotten Conan tales.
With only enthusiasm and an endorsement from de Camp to offer, he suggested to the Kuykendalls that he serve as literary agent for the forgotten works of Howard. They entered into a handshake agreement that would last for 27 years. "My first year as agent for Robert Howard material," he says, "was 1965, and my commission on sales was $225.68."
Now near 70 and retired, Lord will not say what the Howard industry would go on to earn in the almost three decades during which he successfully negotiated numerous domestic and foreign book deals and movie and television contracts, as well as an agreement with Marvel Comics for rights to publish more than 500 editions of Howard-written and Howard-inspired stories, trading cards, and a line of action figures, plus T-shirts, coins, records, and art prints. Something in the neighborhood of a couple of hundred million dollars is a safe bet, says one Howard expert. And interest never seems to wane: USA Today recently reported that several studios are considering a new Conan movie, this one possibly starring World Wrestling Federation star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
And the beat continues.
A limited edition of Howard's Solomon Kane, illustrated by award-winning Chicago artist Gary Gianni, was recently released by a British publishing house and sells for $160 a copy. There is also a CD recording of three Howard poems available. A New York publisher calling itself Cross Plains Comics is producing a series of graphic novels based on Howard's writings, and a two-volume The Chronicles of Conan, including all of the original Conan stories, will soon be released by Orion, a British publisher. Current entertainment-world buzz suggests that a new television show, featuring Howard's King Kull and Red Sonja characters, and perhaps even an animated version of Conan are in the works. There are, in fact, now separate corporations for four Howard characters--Conan Productions, Inc.; Solomon Kane, Inc.; Kull Productions, Inc.; and the Red Sonja Corporation.
Sales of Howard books in Germany, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, and France continue at a brisk pace. In Bulgaria, Lord says, unauthorized versions of Howard's Conan stories have been among that country's best-sellers for years. Today, he adds, Robert E. Howard fans abroad outnumber those in the U.S.
Over the years, rights to the Howard properties have passed far afield from Dr. Kuykendall. After his death, his wife inherited the responsibility of overseeing the business, then it was passed along to a daughter, who was the first to see real signs of the oncoming Howard revival. Since 1995, all things related to Robert Howard rights have been watched over by Austin's Jack Baum, an associate commissioner with the Texas Department of Health, and his wife Barbara. "It gets a little confusing," admits Barbara, a high-school English teacher trying to explain the chain of events, "but my husband was distantly related to the Kuykendall heirs by marriage."
She admits that neither she nor her husband knew much of Robert E. Howard or his writings until they heard family members talking of the first Conan movie back in the early '80s. "We had no idea at the time," she says, "that one day we would be entrusted with the rights to his works."
Now well-versed in all things Howard, she admits that keeping up with the various publishing projects being planned and under way and fielding an ongoing stream of new offers for film deals and product licensing has become such a full-time job that she is thinking of leaving teaching to give full attention to the Howard properties.
"What we're spending a great deal of time on now," she says, "is getting a lot of his other things republished. Despite the success he's enjoyed with the Conan and Kull kinds of stories, he's been placed in a niche that really doesn't do his body of work justice. Howard wrote some wonderful Westerns, good detective stories. As an English teacher, I find his poetry is remarkable. I think there is a much wider audience for his writing out there if people are made aware that he wrote things other than the sword-and-sorcery adventure stories. During his career, he wrote something for everyone."
"Robert Howard's work in the genre of popular adventure fiction has shown a staying power and a capacity for arousing lasting enthusiasm far beyond any of his contemporaries, save only Edgar Rice Burroughs, father of the timeless hero Tarzan..." --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.
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.
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.
"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.
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