In the pantheon of Texas-born writers, Robert E. Howard ranks among the state’s most prolific and imaginative authors. Despite his prodigious body of work, “REH”—as he is known to devoted fans worldwide—remains unknown to many mainstream fiction readers. Perhaps if Howard had written the great Texas novel he intended, his name would tower among the likes of Larry McMurtry, Katherine Anne Porter, and Elmer Kelton.
One Howard creation, however, has achieved star power rivaling such larger-than-life characters as Tarzan, James Bond, and Harry Potter: Conan the Barbarian. One of the most popular heroic fantasy characters ever created, Conan sprang from the pages of Howard’s pulp-fiction tales to reign as a pop-culture icon in magazines, novels, comic books, video games, toys, television series, and Arnold Schwarzenegger films.
The father of the swashbuckling “sword and sorcery” fantasy genre, Howard also wrote adventure, western, detective, boxing, science fiction, and horror stories, as well as poetry. One of the top contributors to “the pulps” (magazines printed on cheap pulpwood paper) in the 1920s and ’30s, Howard published more than 160 stories in his 12-year writing career and left behind some 100 more unpublished manuscripts and other fragments.
A natural storyteller with a lively imagination, Howard created unforgettable characters such as “Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer”; the avenging Puritan swordsman Soloman Kane; and the Popeye-like, prize-fighting Sailor Steve Costigan. As many critics have observed, these and other characters are a reflection of Howard’s personality and life experiences.
Howard was born in 1906 in the town of Peaster, northwest of Weatherford. His father, Dr. Isaac Howard, an erudite traveling country physician, moved the family from cowtown to boomtown pursuing get-rich-quick schemes. In 1919, the Howards settled in Cross Plains, a town southeast of Abilene that Robert would call home the rest of his life.
Howard’s mother, Hester, nurtured his love of poetry and literature. A precocious child, Howard grew up in a book-filled house on a diet of Texas tall tales, mythology, classics, and literary giants like Jack London, Mark Twain, and Arthur Conan Doyle. By age nine, he began writing stories about Vikings, Arabs, and savage battles. By age 15, Robert began reading pulp fiction and continued writing adventure yarns while attending high school in nearby Brownwood.
Howard sold his first story, “Spear and Fang,” when he was 19 to the pulp magazine that became his primary outlet: Weird Tales. A year later, in 1925, Weird Tales published Howard’s first cover story. As his publishing successes accelerated, he dropped his training in bookkeeping and never worked a regular job again. Howard’s writing career blossomed in the 1930s as he moved beyond Weird Tales into other pulps such as Argosy and Fight Stories.
Although Howard led an isolated life in Cross Plains, he had several close friends, corresponded with other writers, and began traveling around Texas in the early 1930s, enjoying “the wholesale consumption of tortillas, enchiladas, and Spanish wine,” according to a Howard letter cited in a 2002 printing of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.
He loved Texas history and folklore and visited old forts and battle sites. According to Howard biographer Mark Finn, “Texas as a state plays a unique role in the development of Howard’s career. Texas provided inspiration, setting, and in many cases, a voice for Howard’s stories.”
During a trip to Enchanted Rock on a misty winter day, he envisioned Conan’s fantasy land of Cimmeria, and in early 1932, while visiting Mission, he wrote the poem “Cimmeria” and conceived the character Conan. Conan was an immediate hit with Weird Tales readers, and Howard wrote 21 stories featuring the conquering warrior.
In the final years of his short life, Howard tried his hand at detective fiction, dabbled in Middle Eastern adventure with his Texan hero Francis X. Gordon (“El Borak”), and turned to writing westerns and tall tales, hoping to write a Texas novel.
Howard’s only romantic interest, Novalyne Price, moved to Cross Plains in 1934 to teach high school. They dated for the next two years, often driving around the countryside discussing writing, philosophy, religion, and Texas history. Their tempestuous relationship suffered as Howard became increasingly preoccupied with his mother’s poor health, and Novalyne began dating one of Howard’s best friends. Novalyne left Cross Plains in 1936 to attend graduate school at Louisiana State University, and the two never spoke or wrote to each other again. While in Cross Plains, Novalyne had recorded her daily conversations with Howard in a journal, and decades later she mined this intimate material for her 1986 memoir, One Who Walked Alone, which chronicles Howard’s final years and inspired the 1996 film The Whole Wide World.
By 1936, Howard had fallen into a downward spiral. Weird Tales was behind in payments, and expenses were piling up. His mother was near death, requiring constant home care and making it difficult for him to write at home. On June 8, 1936, Hester Howard slipped into a coma. On the morning of June 11, Robert, then 30 years old, asked a nurse if she would ever regain consciousness, and when the nurse said no, he went to his parked car, took a pistol from the glove box, and shot himself in the head. His mother died the following day. Howard left a cryptic suicide note in his typewriter, a couplet borrowed from an obscure poem: “All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre; The feast is over and lamps expire.”
Howard’s suicide at the peak of his writing career has fueled much speculation about his mental health, whether he suffered from clinical depression, an Oedipus complex, and suicidal tendencies. While Howard could be affable and fun-loving, his personal correspondence reveals chronic dark moods, even foreshadowing his suicide. When Howard was only 24, he wrote to a friend, in a letter cited in a biography written by Rusty Burke, “I am haunted by the realization that my best days, mental and physical, lie behind me.” Fortunately, Howard would continue writing for six more years, including the tales of Conan and other swashbuckling characters that continue to enchant readers today.