The Father of Conan: Robert E. Howard

Devils Generation by Frank Frazetta

I. Two-Gun Bob in Cimmeria
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) was different. He was a burly Texan who bore a resemblance to Edward G. Robinson but could write like Edgar Allan Poe on an opium fueled rye whiskey bender. Howard was making a small fortune from his writing as a young man but his parents never acknowledged writing as a serious profession for Howard. Consequentially, he strove well beyond their meager expectations of a what a writer should be by publishing 62 novels and dozens of short stories printed in pulp comics and magazines.

After his death, his characters would live on as new authors took up his heroes - the indestructible Conan the Barbarian, Kull The Conquerer, the vile wizard Thulsa Doom, Red Sonya and the vengeful Solomon Kane.

Where in the brains and talent lottery did Mr. Howard fall? To judge this accurately, look at Howard's contemporaries. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator Tarzan of the Apes (first published in 1912) and John Carter of Mars, undoubtedly influenced the stories of Howard starting at a very early age. H.P. Lovecraft, the acknowledged master of horror, would influence and engage Howard personally in a lengthy correspondence that would last for the rest of his life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, a world away, was nearly simultaneouslly working in elaborate fantasy worlds. Both Howard's and Tolkien's stories were set in unique and lavishly detailed worlds of distant ages past. Later, Frank Frazetta, an artist in his own remarkable class of fantasy illustration, would pick up Howard's theme of the rugged individual set against a ruthless world of blood-thirsty men, angry demons, dark gods and colossal reptiles. In this kind of company, Howard is thought to have been ranked fairly high as far as the brains department went - right there in the heart of dusty, old Texas.

"Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."
— Robert E. Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword.

However, as all men are all the product of the same even hand, Howard was given a large share of hardship and emotional turbulence to balance out the large measure of talent he was alotted. Howard was a lifelong chronic depressive renowned for his gloominess. His mother, Hester Jane, was sick or bedridden most of his life. He was never engaged, married or had any children. In the end , Howard died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound hours before his mother would succumb to cancer.

This sad end to his life was a tragic theft of a great writer. His life was just as fascinating as his writing. But, to try to understand Robert E. Howard you must start at the beginning of his life - not at the end.

II. The kid from the dry Texas waste
Robert E. Howard's youth was spent wandering with his traveling country doctor father Isaac Howard and his tubercular mother Hester Ervin Howard. While Robert was growing up, the family moved through a series of small Texas towns tending wildcat oilmen and new and old frontiersmen.

The Howards lived in a long line of cowtowns and boomtowns including: Dark Valley, Seminole, Bronte, Poteet, Oran, Wichita Falls, Bagwell, Cross Cut, and Burkett before settling in Cross Plains. He was an unusually bright child who spoke to aging Civil War veterans and Texas Rangers, listening to the grisly ghost stories told by his grandmother, meeting ex-slaves, and exploring the ruins of old forts and historical sites. These experiences had a strong influence on his personality. By the time he reached his teens, Howard had soaked in the aftermath of the American West through the first hand tales of the people that were part of that history.

The Howards eventually settled in the 1920's in a small town of approximately two thousand residents called Cross Plains. Like much of the Central West Texas region of the era, Cross Plains went through periodic oil-based booms that brought hundreds or even thousands of temporary inhabitants who set up camps just outside the town limits, jammed the hotels beyond capacity, rented rooms, beds and private homes.

The lease men, riggers, drillers and roughnecks who followed the boom were followed by others who sought to make a quick buck off them: from men who set up hamburger stands to feed them, to gamblers and bar whores, to thugs, thieves and con men who simply preyed on them.

An oil boom could make a sleepy little town into a big city in no time - bringing with it social upheaval. The extra hundreds who swelled the population of Cross Plains managed to make it a wilder and rowdier town than usual. Of the atmosphere in boomtown Cross Plains, Howard later wrote: "I’ll say one thing about an oil boom: it will teach a kid that life’s a pretty rotten thing about as quick as anything I can think of."

Howard was given a wide array of characters to draw from his experience even as a young man. These characters shaped the surreal settings he created with realistically brutal dangers. The only kind of man that could survive them was a intelligent, strong hero - the kind of hero that embodied Howard's central theme of rugged individualism.

III. Weird Tales
Howard spent his late teens working odd jobs in Cross Plains: picking cotton, branding yearlings, hauling garbage, working in grocery stores, doing clerical work, serving at a soda counter, public stenography, packing rods for a surveyor, and writing oil-field news, all while taking courses at Howard Payne College in Brownwood (an adjunct of the college) and trying to break into the pulp markets.

Weird Tales May 1934After years of rejection slips and near acceptances, he finally sold a short caveman tale titled "Spear and Fang" which netted him the princely sum of $16 and introduced him to the readers of a struggling pulp called Weird Tales.

Howard would create a string of heroes for pulps ahead of Conan the Barbarian. Solomon Kane, a vengeful puritan who roamed through dark, bloody tales of betrayal. Sailor Steve Costigan, a navy boxer with "a head full of rocks and occasionally a heart of gold" who turned up in rough seaport towns across the ocean. Then came Kull, sometimes King Kull or Kull the Conquerer, a Altantis era warrior who lived in a prehistoric age of swords and sorcery. These first heroes, with exception of Kull, immediately found their mark in pulp publications Fight Tales, Action Tales and Weird Tales starting in 1929.

Reworking the Kull storylines into an even and formulatic character Howard came up with a proto-Celtic barbarian. A lone man who wandered cold wastes that were populated only by tribes of subhumans, feral animals, terrifying monsters and evil women. This first came from a story featuring both Kull and Conan called "People of the Dark". This story was published in December of 1932 as "The Phoenix on the Sword" in Weird Tales.

The Phoenix on the SwordThe barbarian who would be king reflected much of Howard's own values of independence, physical and mental strength, adventurousness and self-reliance. Conan's world, the Hyborean Age, reflected the chaos and danger present in the real world in exagerated angles. Battles, duels, lynchings, dry wastelands, warfare, betrayals, lawless metropolises all composed in prose completed the formula. Conan was such a hit that Howard published 17 more Conan stories in Weird Tales for the next four years.

Eager to explore more characters and settings and due to his interest in history and exotic or esoteric subjects Howard published more of his stories featuring his heroes in Oriental Tales, Argosy, Jack Dempsey's Fight Magazine, Marvel Tales, Thrilling Adventures, Strange Tales, Ghost Stories, Top-Notch, Cowboy Stories, Strange Detective Stories and Super-Detective Stories.

IV. "All fled, all done..."
The growing success in his writing career did not offset the bleak darkness in his personal life. In 1934, Howard met a local school teacher named Novalyne Price. Although Novalyne was a smart and unusual woman, she would leave Howard repeatedly before finally deserting him completely to move to Louisiana and attend LSU. Howard also acted as a caregiver to his mother, who struggled with TB and cancer. Howard watched as his mother's health continued to decline.

These factors plus Howard's manic-depression and bipolar tendencies made the real world seem more unbearable. It containing none of the epic themes, the heroic victories or the predestined love that seemed to live only in his work.

At a Brownwood hospital on the morning of June 11th 1936, after being told by a nurse that his mother would never again regain consciousness, Robert E. Howard walked out to his car in the driveway where he took a borrowed .38 automatic from the glove box and shot himself in the head. His father and another doctor rushed out but the wound was too grievous for anything to be done. Howard lived for another eight hours, dying at 4 p.m. His mother died the following day. They were both buried on June 14th 1936 in a double funeral in Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, Texas.

Wikipedia, Edgar Rice Burroughs
Wikipedia, Robert E. Howard
Wikisource, Works of Robert E Howard
Robert E. Howard United Press Association, Biography
Robert Weinberg, My Trip to Cross Plains
The Cimmerian, Thulsa Doom

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