(This article appeared previously in Fortean Times, in January 2013, and was nominated for a Robert E Howard Foundation Award).
“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 jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
With these words, Texan writer Robert E Howard introduced his most famous hero to the readers of the now legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, 80 years ago now. It would be difficult to find someone who has not heard of Conan, be it through the comics, films or abundant paperbacks. They’ll know he’s a barbarian, battles wizards and monsters, and that he has mighty thews, though not necessarily what thews are.
But if they’ve heard of Robert E Howard at all, chances are they’ll have the notion that he was a paranoid, gun-toting, redneck savant who locked himself up at night and typed up the stories dictated by his ghostly barbarian muse. They also know that he had an unsound relationship with his mother, and killed himself when she died. Until quite recently there wasn’t much decent biographical information available, and since nature abhors a vacuum this lead to much speculation and a distorted picture of the man who seemingly out of nowhere created the genre of Sword and Sorcery.
Few would consider that Howard’s main theme, barbarism versus civilisation, goes much deeper than the snarling brute of popular imagination, and that it is actually a reversal of that image. Few would readily accept that the Conan stories form but a small part of Howard’s output in many other genres. In fact, he was effectively done with the Fantasy genre, and might not have revisited it, even had he lived past the ripe young age of 30.
The truth, as always, is less prosaic than the myth, but also far more interesting. To really understand Robert E Howard, however, you have to know where he came from; and then the rural Texas of the early 20th Century seems less unlikely a place for the father of Sword and Sorcery.
Before the Howards settled down in Cross Plains in 1919, they’d wandered all over Texas. Isaac Howard was a doctor who chased the various oil, cattle, land and railroad booms. He practiced what was called frontier medicine, a heady mix of practicality and experiment, always trying to stay at the forefront of medical developments. He may have bought into quack schemes, but also used revolutionary techniques such as hypnosis, and read books on yoga and Eastern mysticism. Later, when his son looked for inspiration for one of his occult stories, he didn’t have to look further than his dad’s study. FT readers may be happy to know that Robert himself had Fort’s Lo! in his collection.
Easy to get along with, a bit rough around the edges but capable, Isaac Howard was the sort of man that thrived in the West. The Texans of that time saw their society in transition; old-timers still remembered the battles with the Native Americans, and the Mexican civil war was just a decade behind them. Predominantly agricultural communities found themselves overrun by industry and, whenever oil was found, an influx of transient workers. Not getting any younger, with a wife in bad health and a teenage son, Isaac hoped to get settled in Cross Plains before it hit a boom, before all the other speculators, and his gamble paid off.
Much is unclear about Isaac’s wife Hester prior to their marriage.Hester Ervin was from Irish stock, one of 16 children from her father’s two marriages. She had a hard life taking care of siblings with TB, contracting this dreaded disease herself in the process. In his correspondence, Robert described how the Ervins, a ‘race of wanderers’, conquered the West in the mid 19th century, but while the basic facts of this personal myth check out, Hester must have told him many a white lie: she was a proud woman, and a degrading existence of starvation and hardship did not offer heroic tales to pass on to her son.
She seemed destined to be an ‘old maid’, until she met Isaac Howard in 1904, when she was 34 and he 32. They married, as much for practicality as for love: it offered her an escape and him a travelling companion and valuable help. They really didn’t expect any children, and that suited them well; Isaac was busy with his practice, she in the early stages of TB, and they were constantly on the road. Then, she conceived and miraculously – pregnancy was dangerous at the best of times – she and her son both survived. Somehow, the birth certificate lists Robert’s birthday as 24 (instead of 22) January 1906, and reduces her age by five years. It was the first time, but definitely not the last, that the facts surrounding Robert E Howard would be twisted.
Wherever they went, Isaac found plenty of work and respect. With him often away from home and with no proper roots wherever they lived, Hester and her only child were dependant on each other’s company, and a strong bond formed between them. Robert was a precocious child and, having learned to read at the age of two, devoured the classics of Stevenson, Haggard and Jack London. Increasingly housebound, Hester recited poetry to her son and presented her tuberculosis as the disease of poets and thinkers. She taught him the history, lore and legends of Mother Ireland, which gave him the idea that they themselves were descended from Irish royalty.
Most of Howard’s heroes are of what he defined as the Gaelic type, and he could give them depth of character because he identified with them. He may not have believed in reincarnation, but frequently used it in his stories, and as Conan of Cimmeria is a far descendant of Kull of Valusia, Cormac of Connacht in turn is one of the Celts the Cimmerians evolved into.
All of them are loners and fighters, all of them in exile of sorts. The outlaw Turlogh O’Brien, the pirate Cormac MacArt and the crusader Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Brian Boru’s warlord Red Cumal, Cormac of Connacht – these men come not to build or create, but rather to kill and destroy; at best maintain. Conan and Kull end up as kings, but sit uneasy on their stolen thrones. These are all men that Howard could identify with, and it can’t be coincidence that most of them are tall and dark-haired. Some had grey eyes, some blue, but all of them, including Howard, could have been siblings.
Then there was Isaac’s mother: “My grandmother was but one generation removed from south Ireland and she knew by heart all the tales and superstitions of the folks,” remembered Robert in a letter to H P Lovecraft, “All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her.” She, and the stories she told, made young Robert’s hair rise, and while he tried his hand at the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, it’s in stories like “Pigeons from Hell” that he’s at his best. Their horrors are on a more human scale, an air of authenticity created with off-hand details and bang-on characterisation, and it’s easy to imagine that he wrote them with his grandmother’s voice in mind.
The legends of the Celts weren’t the only ones he heard, though, and in the same letter to Lovecraft he recalled the stories told by the Howards’ cook in his early childhood, an ex-slave he called Aunt Mary Bohannon. The returning dead of her tales may have been imaginary, but the cruel slave-master and his whippings certainly were not. These stories were the first that really moved him, and though the world he lived in was inherently racist, segregation was never clear-cut to him.
H P Lovecraft may have been one of those middle class townies for whom it was easy to expound on the virtues of the white race, the Howards dealt more closely with their black neighbours and Hester especially knew how despised the Irish themselves had been. While she taught her son to be proud of his heritage, Robert usually wrote with sympathy about those who history gave the short end of the stick – the Native Americans, the black antagonists of his boxing stories and especially the wild, elusive Picts and their god-king Bran Mak Morn.
That Robert’s later stories are so eminently readable, and that each has its own strong narrative voice, can be traced to those stories told to him from his earliest days. From Aunt Mary, his mother and his grandmother he learned to tell a tale as if he himself believed it, no matter how tall or fanciful it was. His stories are on a human scale, “Poets are dangerous things,” he reveals in one King Kull tale, “because they believe what they sing, at the time“. But it wasn’t just the stories he heard that formed him and informed his own writing: with the blood and violence that we find there in such abundance he was all too familiar.
As son of a country doctor, Robert became familiar not just with the farming accidents you’d expect, but also with the legacy of the population explosion caused by the oil boom: knife and fist fights were common amongst the roughnecks, and as victims of violence and industrial accidents were dropped on the Howard’s porch to be patched up by his father, innocence was soon lost for the young observer. As he later confided in a letter to H P Lovecraft: “The average child of ten or twelve who’s lived through a boom or so, knows more vileness and bestial sinfulness than a man of thirty should know.” [Letter to HPL, December 1930]
But Robert also learned other lessons on the rounds with Isaac. Often, Robert would wait on the porch and listen to the old-timers as they exchanged stories. Tall tales had been a vital and daily part of life in the frontiering of the old West, and had both a social and psychological function. They invariably dealt with the life of hardship the pioneers led, but also celebrated their individualism, courage and resilience. In Robert’s lifetime these tales reflected nostalgia for an era before progress, keeping the frontier spirit that was so typical for the American character alive.
Often, such tales would have a core of truth, either in their main character or historical event, and they were told with humor or exaggeration. Bragging was a celebrated skill, with the audience complicit in the lie – as often as not, the narrator was the butt of the joke. In earlier times these settlers, cowboys and roughnecks would have created a Beowulf; in this more realistic age, the tales took a more comic, parodic, or ironic turn. Humour makes a hard life softer.
As a teenager, Robert had gone out with his friends to gather tales from the old people, not unlike what the Brothers Grimm had done a century earlier, and he’d become something of an expert, lecturing out-of-state correspondents on local history and lore. However, while he saw folklore and myth as the collective folk memory and part of the history and identity of a people, he couldn’t resist tweaking the stories to improve them, as he also ‘improved’ his own family’s history. In his work, too, he would rewrite history in the guise of fiction.
Especially the stories Robert wrote at the dawn of his career for local newspapers and magazines adhere closely to the form of traditional tall tale, with colourful language, local settings and a nostalgia for the old ways of the wild, wild West that were disappearing rapidly. This influence remained particularly strong in his boxing adventures and comedy westerns, with protagonists like the oafish Breckenridge Elkins recognised as parodies of Robert himself. To his later Westerns he brought realism: far less straightforward than the White Hat heroics of John Wayne, they foreshadow the violence and grit of Sergio Leone. At a time when the detectives of Hammett and Chandler exploded in the pulps, Howard wrote what could best be described as ‘Desert Noir’.
Though classified as a Fantasy tale, “Beyond the Black River” is as realistic as any of Howard’s stories. It’s one of the later Conan-stories, and with his hero at the height of his popularity, Howard found the freedom to infuse it with the concerns that kept him awake at night, firmly grounding it in his own native soil. Sure, it contains some magic, but not much of it, and what it is really about is life on the frontier. Written in 1935 it reaches back to when he first thought of Conan while visiting the town of Mission, near the border between Texas and Mexico.
Mission lies a mere 15 miles from the Alamo mission, where James Bowie, with the frontiersman-turned-congressman Davey Crocket, fought a losing battle in 1836 against invading Mexican troops. The Alamo passed into legend, ultimately culminating in the image of John Wayne wearing a raccoon on his head. In Howard’s story, the outpost is on the Pictish border, where Conan joins the young woodsman Baltus and tries to save the fort from a Pictish uprising, ignored as it is by an uncaring government.
The hero of tall tales is larger than life, distinguished by an extraordinary birth or childhood, and usually associated with an animal. It took five storks to deliver Paul Bunyan, and he adventured through the whole of America with his blue ox Babe. Calamity Jane apparently was on horseback before she could talk, Davey Crockett had “the ugliest dog in the district” and Pecos Bill was raised by coyotes. These animals are totems, like Odin’s ravens and the dog that gave Cuchulainn his name. Battlefield-born Conan is known as Amra, the Lion, while Baltus teams up with a vengeful half-wild dog.
In this Hyborean Alamo, Conan and Baltus stand in for the larger than life folk heroes Bowie and Crockett, and the story is built from the stuff that tall tales are made of, in which their heroes often find themselves fighting against ‘progress’, trying to preserve their way of life. Conan here is that hero, warning against the proverbial barbarians at the gate, but also using his own barbarian ways to preserve the status quo. And as so often in these tales, the fight is ultimately futile, and Baltus -as did Crockett- dies a heroic death. Conan survives by the skin of his teeth, and as the story concludes we find him in a pub, nursing his grudge against civilisation. The words spoken to him by a fellow survivor could have been those of Howard himself:
“‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'”
This belief was intimately rooted in Howard’s early experience of the world. The oil boom came to Cross Plains when he was a teenager, bringing with it a tide of speculators, roughnecks, criminality and disease. Robert grew up an impassioned critic of how oil booms destroyed the social, economic and moral structures of previously stable communities. As he wrote in the Argosy All-Story Weekly in the spring of 1929:
“I’ve seen towns leap into being overnight and become deserted almost as quick. I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil wholesale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers and gangsters in a matter of months.”
In the intensely practical culture of Cross Plains in the ’20s, few people would regard Howard’s career as writer as a legitimate job or part of his family’s financial support. He had tried to fit in and taken various manual jobs, but he hated being told what to do by people he considered his intellectual inferiors. He slogged off his frustration in boxing matches and ironically gained respect as regional champion amongst the roughnecks he otherwise despised. When his father allowed him to focus on his writing, Robert increasingly withdrew from the community, and soon he felt he was seen as “Doc Howard’s crazy son Bob“.
Howard would spend the rest of his life shuttling between brain and brawn, and Novalyne Price, the on/off girlfriend of his late twenties, didn’t know which she’d be dating on any given day. He was quick to anger at perceived slights, and found plenty to criticise as the town experienced a second oil boom. Howard probably felt that his disdain was justified, and the bleak tone in which he described his world at the time to his correspondents bore all the signs of a bitter social detachment.
The photograph of him that is most often reproduced is also the least representative. “That damn fool hat bothers me,” he complained to Novalyne when she made him wear it for the photograph. For him it represented the hated sweep of modernity in rural Texas, and though he’d wear it for her, he would – or could – conform no further and eventually they broke up. Half a century later Price wrote about their time together in “One Who Walked Alone”. The book is required reading for any Howard scholar, and the film based on it, “The Whole Wide World”, should appeal to fan and layman alike.
While ill at ease with the people of Cross Plains, Howard found an ersatz family in the authors of Weird Tales. This brotherhood of authors like H P Lovecraft, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith and E Hoffman Price passionately argued their work and influences, and indulged in sneaking references to Lovecraft’s Old Ones in their stories. There was an enormous respect for each other, but also insurmountable differences. Lovecraft’s racism irked Howard, and when Hoffman Price visited Cross Plains he raised an eyebrow over Howard’s armed vigilance against highway robbers, not realising that he’d fallen victim to authentic, Texan showmanship; myth-making in progress.
Editor Farnsworth Wright, as Pater Famillias of Weird Tales, was a capricious figure who approved or rejected stories according to his own taste and instinct. He as much as Howard shaped what Conan would become. Left to himself, Howard would include few love interests and what women did appear could easily take care of themselves. Under Wright’s aegis, there was sex appeal, and floggings were abundant, with a chivalrous Conan rushing to the rescue.
In the latter cycle of Conan stories Howard had the opportunity to investigate the various themes that interested him, but it wasn’t always like this. While Wright liked much of the first of two Conan stories Howard submitted to him in 1932, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, his verdict on the other was brief: “I am returning ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ in a separate envelope, as I do not much care for it“. [Letter, 10 March1932].
Howard often described how Conan sprung up in his mind fully formed while on holiday, the combination of “various prize-fighters gunmen, bootleggers, oilfield bullies, gamblers and honest workmen,” but he confided in Novalyne Price that this was a stock answer and any character’s origins were a mystery to him. And while he might have had the initial idea for Conan at the Rio Grande, it took him quite a while to get a handle on the character and his world.
To help him get started he based “The Phoenix on the Sword” on an unsold Kull adventure, “By this Axe I rule”, with the romantic subplot removed and some magic inserted. Farnsworth Wright requested a rewrite, and Howard duly replaced a lengthy introduction with that now famous quote from the Nemedian Chronicles, starting “Know, O Prince,” then mentioning Atlantis and “an age undreamt of“. Hither came Conan, and Howard felt that he had a winner on his hands.
Though he disparaged himself as a hack and told others that the stories wrote themselves, Howard actually worked hard at both the craft of writing and the marketing of his stories. He outlined them in detail, then wrote multiple drafts and made careful revisions. Howard was not the idiot savant that fantasy fandom myths sometimes make him out to be. He drew a map of Conan’s world and gave it a pseudo-historical framework with his essay The Hyborean Age.
The second batch of Conan yarns Howard wrote yielded far from the best stories. Howard knew that he could get away with writing to a formula and sell just about every Conan story he did.”I had a splitting sick headache, too, when I wrote the first half,” he told Clark Ashton Smith about “Rogues in the House”, and stories like “Iron Shadows in the Moon” and “Black Colossus” are not any better. With their obligatory monsters and damsels in distress, though, they are among the most imitated precisely because their formula is easy to follow.
Howard wrote these stories at a gallop: the Depression has killed off some of the other magazines he sold to, and as his mother’s health was spiralling downwards he needed the money to cover her medical expenses. The Howards relied on the cheques that they received each month from Weird Tales, but then those cheques stopped too coming, with the not inconsiderable sum of $800 owed. Farnsworth Wright’s idiosyncratic approach to publishing also extended to the payroll administration.
“I always hate to write a letter like this, but dire necessity forces me to. It is, in short, an urgent plea for money. It is nothing new for me to need money, but the present circumstances are different from those in which I generally found myself in the past,” begins a letter Howard wrote to Wright in May 1935, followed by the eerily prophetic “If you cut off my monthly checks now, I don’t know what in God’s name we’ll do.“
The whole letter is worth reading and would wring tears from a stone, but Robert received reply nor money from Wright. While he finished some more Conan stories, they were works in transition. Increasingly he realised that his heart lay in the wild West, and “Black River” is already halfway there. The last was “Red Nails”, its crumbling of a decadent civilisation not merely the backdrop for the stor, but its meat and bones. With this, Howard was done with Conan and with Weird Tales.
As 1935 ended and 1936 began, a crisis seemed unavoidable. Isaac was seldom home, relentlessly doing the rounds amongst his poverty-stricken patients. Through his agent Robert found some success selling his Westerns to magazines that did pay, but he missed the stability that Weird Tales had offered. Hester’s health deteriorated further and as he now was her sole carer, Robert hardly found time to work. “Woman after woman we hired, and they quit, either worn out by the work or unwilling to do it,” he wrote in his last letter to Lovecraft, in May 1936, “I’ve gone for nearly a week at a time without even taking off my shoes, just snatching a nap as I could between times.“
Though Esther’s condition had stabilised when Robert wrote this, he knew it was temporary. Emotionally drained, he saw no prospect of earning a steady living from his writing, had no-one to love (and love him) and feared growing old or ill himself, and for him “the game was not worth the candle“. Isaac saw it coming, had hidden the household’s firearms, but had reckoned without the borrowed small gun that Robert kept in the glove compartment of his car. On the 11th of June 1936 Hester sank into a coma from which Robert was assured she would not awake. He walked out of the door, got into the car, and shot himself.
“Can you authenticate the story?” wrote Hoffman Price, “It seems so damn outrageous I can’t believe it.” Lovecraft had written him the bad news, taking it upon himself to write an obituary for Weird Tales in memory of Howard’s work. “To hell with the blow to literature,” bristled Hoffman Price, “the loss of the man is so damned incomparably greater than the loss of anything as stupid as literature.” He himself tried to sum up his friend, but found it impossible. “An overgrown boy–a brooding anachronism” he tried, “A man of strange, whimsical, bitter and utterly illogical resentments and hatreds and enmities and grudges.” Eventually gave up, concluding only that, “If you met Howard, I can not add; if you did not, I can not start.” – an undoubted truth that has tripped up Howard scholars and biographers ever since.
A heartbroken Isaac Howard buried his wife and son and began the consuming work of putting Robert’s affairs in order, amongst them the now legendary ‘trunk’ containing thousands of pages of unsorted typescripts, notes, drafts and letters. He tried to get the Weird Tales payments, by then over $1500, out of Farnsworth Wright but it only got him letters about the editor’s own ill health. Aged by both time and his circumstances, Isaac died in 1944. Lovecraft had already passed on in 1937 and Weird Tales went under in 1954 in the general collapse of the pulps.
In the 1950s, the Conan stories resurfaced in hardbacks after Weird Tales writer August Derleth successfully brought Lovecraft’s work to a small but dedicated audience. Where Lovecraft had a torch bearer in Derleth, Howard got science fiction writer L. Sprague deCamp who saw his own career on the wane and seized with both hands the opportunity to edit Howard’s work. He then dipped into ‘the trunk’, completing unfinished drafts and converting Howard’s other work into tales of Conan. “This did not prove difficult,” he wrote proudly, “I had merely to delete anachronisms and introduce a supernatural element.”
In the mid-60s Frank Frazetta fixed the definitive look of Conan with his cover paintings for mass market Lancer paperbacks, while deCamp as self-appointed biographer sketched the popular image of Robert E Howard as “maladjusted to the point of psychosis“. Many rewrites and ‘posthumous collaborations’ and pastiches by deCamp, Lin Carter and others followed; then the Marvel comics and finally John Milius’s 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian”. By now, Conan had become an oiled-up Muscle Beach hero, and Howard himself the subject of broad speculation. “He was convinced that the town wanted to exterminate him… and he would go home and board up his windows, load rifles…A complete nut!” director John Milius says in a documentary accompanying his film. He continues: “he’s alone one night, and he feels a shadow overtake him from behind, and he knows that Conan stand behind him with a large axe! And Conan tells him: ‘Stay there and write!’.”
Howard himself had now become a myth, a tall tale.
Ever since the early 50s, Robert E Howard has had a dedicated fan following, quickly centering around Glenn Lord, the literary agent for the Howard Estate. It was he who had tracked down ‘the trunk’, and published those letters, drafts and poems not picked up by other publishers in his fan magazine, The Howard Collector. If the adulterated Conan had always been a thorn in the side of these fans, the 21st century saw some light on the horizon, first with Dark Horse comics based solely on Howard’s writing, then with rumours of a new Conan movie, and finally with gorgeously illustrated reprints of pure Howard and several well-researched biographies.
But even now the urge to mythologise is difficult to overcome. Unable to come to terms with Howard’s suicide, the story of the fans’ literary hero, his depression and untimely death demands a clearly identifiable external cause, and the finger is often pointed at Hester and Isaac Howard: she portrayed as demanding and shackling her son with her apron strings; Isaac as absent and greedy. In the larger story of Howard scholarship meanwhile, deCamp is still seen as an usurper whose meddling did Conan more harm than good. There still is a lot to unpick and perhaps ignored: Howard was a complex man whose life does not obey the rules of drama.
Besides, rather than focus on his death, it may be more fruitful to focus on Howard’s writing. Underneath all the fantastic trappings, Howard wrote about a world he knew. The bulk of his work is written with skill and honesty, and is as fresh as when it first appeared a lifetime ago. “But the real secret“, wrote HP Lovecraft of Robert E Howard’s stories, “is that he himself is in each and every one of them“.