October 29, 2020

Robert E. Howard

Texas Author Robert E. Howard

Robert Ervin Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936) was an American author and poet. He was born in Peaster, Texas, a small town about 40 miles west of Fort Worth, to Hester and Isaac Howard. Robert’s father Isaac Mordecai (I.M.) Howard was a country doctor. The family moved around often, traveling to several small Texas towns before landing in Cross Plains, Callahan County, Texas where Dr. Howard settled his family in 1919. Robert E. Howard spent his teenage years in the Cross Plains area. A 1925 oil boom boosted the town’s population, which grew to about 1500. Being both the last stop on the Texas Katy railroad and full of roughnecks made for interesting times from which Howard drew inspiration for his fictional characters and their adventures.

Howard went to Cross Plains High School but graduated with honors from Brownwood High School, which went up to the 11th grade and made him eligible to attend college. He enrolled in Howard Payne University (then Howard Payne College) in 1925. He enrolled less out of a desire to do so than out of a need to satisfy his parents’ hopes for his higher education. Also, Robert and Dr. Howard worked out a compromise — if Robert completed some college courses, he would be given free reign for a year to try his hand at making a living with his writing. His first professionally published story, “Spear and Fang,” appeared in Weird Tales the same year he entered college, so it was likely this victory gave Robert the hope that his dream could be achieved. Robert felt school was a waste of time, and aside from history, few subjects really held his interest. It seems that Dr. Howard’s hope had been that his son would follow in his footsteps and become a physician, but in the end, Robert took only the classes that, at a glance, seemed to apply toward his writing endeavors, including Typewriting, Short Hand and Commercial Law classes in the Fall of 1925, and Bookkeeping and Typing in the Fall of 1926, with a few later classes added to earn a certificate. He graduated in Summer 1927.

“Spear and Fang” was the first of many stories Howard wrote for the magazine in its heyday; he became a regular contributor. More than 50 Robert E. Howard stories appeared in the pages of Weird Tales in the 1920 and ‘30s alongside such luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, with whom he had extensive personal correspondence over the years.

Through his correspondence, Howard developed close relationships with many of his contemporaries. He is considered a member of the original “Lovecraft Circle,” contributing a number of stories to the Cthulhu Mythos. Howard also wrote extensively to E. Hoffman Price – one of the only authors who met Howard during a trip to Texas in the mid-1930s.

With over 400 known stories to his credit, Howard was among the most prolific pulp writers of his time. He was also one of the most successful. During the Depression, Howard out-earned everyone in Cross Plains, and was one of the only residents to own a car. His best-known creation is Conan of Cimmeria (see our Conan article here), but he wrote stories featuring many series characters including King Kull of Atlantis, Red Sonja of Rogatino, Bran Mak Morn, Cormac Mac Art, Solomon Kane, Black Vulmea, Sailor Steve Costigan, Dennis Dorgan, El Borak, and of course Breckinridge Elkins – and this is just a partial list. His stories spanned many genres in addition to weird fiction and historical fantasy; he wrote boxing stories, spicy romance, detective mysteries, science fantasy, oriental adventures, horror, and westerns. Howard continues to gain legitimacy as an American writer of primary importance, cited by some as the co-father of modern fantasy alongside J.R.R. Tolkien. Howard ushered in the age of Sword & Sorcery, a sub-genre so termed and refined in later years by Fritz Leiber and others.

Howard’s life and literary merits have been well documented by others over the years. The Wikipedia article on Robert E. Howard is well-researched, annotated, and updated by reliable Howard scholars, so to go into more detail becomes redundant. Suffice to say, Howard was one of the giants of the golden age of pulp fiction, and shaped the work of many great writers, both contemporary and for years to come.

Sadly, Robert E. Howard ended his own life. His mother had long suffered from tuberculosis and slipped into a coma. Many have speculated on Howard’s mental state of mind at the time, but it seems indisputable that hearing the news she would not recover triggered a decision he had been mulling over for some time. After the announcement that his mother would soon pass away, Robert E. Howard went to his car parked behind the house and shot himself in the head. He was 30 years old.

An article documenting what happened appeared in the Cross Plains Review on June 18, 1936. Click the following link to view the article: Double Funeral Held for Mother and Son.

Robert E. Howard Days and Personal Notes

I have long intended to add this article to Realms of Night; I have for just as long put off writing it for a number of reasons. First and foremost, at one point I was fairly well versed in the details of Howard’s life. I also knew that any such article would be scrutinized by some of my friends and Howard scholars, so I dreaded the research and effort required to do it justice. Alas, as of this writing, I am heavily engaged in studying linguistics, reading textbooks, and writing essays in an attempt to finish a Masters degree in English. Thus, I have opted to go the easy route and write what I remember for Realms of Night. Hopefully my friends and acquaintances in the Robert E. Howard United Press Association (REHUPA) and the foundation will forgive any missteps I’ve made in my attempt to honor Howard’s legacy. I have great memories of conversations with those folks and learned so much from them; I can’t presume to match their knowledge or expertise.

The Robert E. Howard House in Cross Plains, TX.
The Robert E. Howard House in Cross Plains, Texas
The Robert E. Howard House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Robert E. Howard House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places

I first visited Cross Plains during Robert E. Howard Days in 2002 and through my interactions with Howard scholars and their recommended readings. By now, the things I have forgotten far outnumber the things I remember. Angeline and I were REHUPA members for a couple of years in 2008 and 2009. So many people have written well and with great authority about Howard’s life. I feel at this point under no obligation to write any kind of extended biographical article outline for the man (a list of further reading, references, and Web sites can be found on the Wikipedia article mentioned above). My favorite source of biographical information has always been The Last Celt, a hefty book compiled by Glenn Lord, first published in hardcover by Donald M. Grant in 1976. Re-reading the introduction to that book by E. Hoffman Price moments ago, I was touched by the depth and emotion of his tribute. Add the width and breadth of material compiled by Glenn Lord alone – premier Howard scholar and early champion of Howard’s fiction – and I honestly don’t feel I could do any more justice than has been done by those who came before me. To me, The Last Celt is the quintessential Howard resource. I would also add a book entitled The Howard Collector, a compilation of selections from Glenn Lord’s small press magazine of the same name. A paperback edition of The Howard Collector was published by Ace in 1979; it contains selections of Howard’s verse, letters, unpublished stories, fragments, and juvenalia, plus letters and articles by others who knew Howard.

Next to reading Howard’s fantasy stories, my greatest memories associated with him are attached to that annual event Angeline and I attended for several years. Robert E. Howard Days was like no other convention. Events took place at a pavilion next to the Howard House and at the Cross Plains High School. The Cross Plains Community Center hosted a silent auction and dinner to raise funds supporting Project Pride, a local organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Robert E. Howard in Cross Plains. More than any other convention, Howard Days fostered a strong sense of camaraderie. We met guests Glenn Lord, Roy Thomas, and Robert Weinberg, among others. We made friends with people who became extended family, so much so that every year in June, driving to Cross Plains felt like more than a celebration of the work and life of Robert E. Howard – it felt like a family reunion.

Robert E. Howard's bedroom
Robert E. Howard’s bedroom

We would spend three days touring Howard’s locale and environs, walk through the Howard house, look into the tiny room where most of Howard’s formidable tales were crafted. We met friends for breakfast at Jean’s Feed Barn, stopped with the kids for a mid-day ice cream at Dairy Queen. We listened to stories told by many dear and friendly locals in Cross Plains – some stories were Howard-related, most not, but all of them engaging. We’d walk up to the Barbarian Festival along main street. One year we poked our heads into the Cross Plains Library book sale. One year my son and I played the Conan RPG with a group at the library for four hours and had a blast. For years, a large group of us held learned discourse late into the night at the pavilion, drank, argued, laughed, and shared in the sense that we were united by something great: the work of Robert E. Howard, larger than life, untethered from the chains of its time. We wrapped up the weekend in those days with a trip to Caddo Ranch, where we climbed to the top of one of the nearby Caddo Peaks and looked across countless miles of West Texas terrain. We descended as a group and took a trailer ride back to the ranch. There we shared a magnificent Texas barbecue dinner as the sun went down in orange, pink, and violet majesty over yon West Texas skies. Pardon my sentimental reverie, but looking back through photos and thinking of all the friends we haven’t seen in some time, I realize those were really great times, and yes, nostalgia sets in.

Angeline surveys original manuscripts by Robert E. Howard

In those days, the Cross Plains Public Library had many of Howard’s original manuscripts on display in plastic bags. You could open them and handle the reinforced manuscript pages with fabric gloves, reading the manuscripts as they were submitted to Howard’s agent, Otis Albert Kline. Still on display are many rare issues of Weird Tales and early Howard hardcover editions. Perhaps the rarest Howard book of all is housed at the museum – the first edition of A Gent from Bear Creek, a western novel published in the UK by Herbert Jenkins a year after Howard’s death in 1937. When I took my first photograph of the book, there were only seven known copies in existence. I believe that number has grown since then.

In May 2004, I had an article published in Texas Highways magazine to raise awareness of this great Texas author and the event that celebrated his life and work. The article “Weird Tales: Texas Writer’s Pulp Legacy Lives On” appeared in print and online.

In 2011, Mark Finn and Chris Gruber compiled an anthology of stories called Dreams in the Fire, which included stories by me, Angeline, and a number of other REHUPA members, past and present. Proceeds from sales of the book went to Project Pride to support maintenance and upkeep of the Robert E. Howard Museum. The book is now out of print, but a copy turns up occasionally on Amazon or eBay.

My Own Howard Collection

After L. Sprague de Camp’s death in November 2000, much of his collection was sold to the Dallas Half Price Books on Northwest Highway. I shopped at that store on a regular basis, so I got to salivate over marvelous tomes I could not afford. At one time, I owned the trade paperback copy of The Last Celt, heavily underlined and notated by de Camp, presumably used as a resource for his own book about Howard, the somewhat controversial Dark Valley Destiny.  Additional Howard books showed up as well – a lot of them. These included original Arkham House editions of Skull-Face and Others, Always Comes Evening, many obscure fanzines, rare magazines, books on Howard, barbarians, and sword and sorcery, not to mention huge numbers of de Camp’s own books written by him and with others. Collectors in-the-know hauled gems out of that place for several months.

At one point I owned so many different versions of Howard’s work that I finally had to make some decisions about what to keep and what to sell. Ultimately, when the texts of Howard’s work were restored and published in the Del Rey editions, I kept those and got rid of most anything that had duplicate stories. Unfortunately, I made the decision to sell many of those titles before I started scanning covers for Realms of Night so I’m not able to include them in the gallery. In 2006, the World Fantasy Convention in Austin doubled as a Robert E. Howard Centennial celebration, so interest in Howard titles was high and I unloaded quite a lot, including early Lancer Conan editions and a complete set of the University of Nebraska Bison Books trade paperbacks. I now kind of wish I’d kept those since a couple of them were edited and contained essays by my friend Chris Gruber. Anyway, the stuff I kept is scanned and contained in the gallery below.

In addition to what appears here, I have a few manuscript facsimiles, photocopies of stories published in high school and college newspapers, a chapbook collection of juvenilia called The Complete Yellow Jacket (reset and collected versions of work published in the Howard Payne College newspaper). I also have a handful of non-fiction books on Howard including Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard by our friend Mark Finn, chapbooks by eminent Howard scholar Rusty Burke, One Who Walked Alone, a memoir of Robert E. Howard by his close friend Novalyne Price Ellis, the aforementioned Dark Valley Destiny by L. Sprague de Camp, and a fine but rare book called The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery by the late Robert Weinberg.

I like the latest Del Rey editions for their purity, but I am also fond of the Berkley editions for their fantastic presentation, replete with fold-out posters. The Zebra editions contain some harder to find, lesser known material, all of which was curated and the publication of which was overseen by Glenn Lord. The Ace edition of Conan the Conqueror below was first published in paperback as an Ace double with The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett. My hardcover Skull-Face Omnibus was published by Neville Spearman in the UK and serves as a placeholder in my collection until I can find a nice copy of Arkham House’s Skull-Face and Others that I can afford. I also have a Grant hardcover edition of The Hour of the Dragon, but decided not to scan it for the gallery, since the cover art is just gray paper with text.

I hope you enjoy the gallery. Unfortunately, my GoDaddy server is increasingly unreliable for rendering my high-resolution scans. High bandwidth connections are your friend here. For scans of Conan novels, please check out this post. To see the list of Robert E. Howard books currently available on Amazon, click here.

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Christopher Fulbright

Christopher Fulbright is the author of short stories, novellas, and full-length novels of fantasy and horror. His short stories have appeared in many venues--webzines, magazines, and anthologies--since 1993. Fulbright received the Richard Laymon President's Award in 2008 from the HWA, and his short stories have received honorable mentions in "The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror" and "Best Horror of the Year." He is a former journalist turned technical writer, an unrepentant horror fan, and owner/webmaster of Realms of Night.

View all posts by Christopher Fulbright →

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