Howard's End

Page 3 of 8

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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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