[The following is an updated and expanded version of a column which was originally published in Hellnotes on February 23, 2006.]
Robert E. Howard is best known for his pulp-fiction historical and legendary action heroes Conan the Cimmerian, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and Kull. He also wrote in other genres: Lovecraft-style horror, fight stories, historical adventure, humor, westerns, and “spicy” stories. Despite his short life, he wrote over 800 stories, poems and novels. January 2006 saw the centennial of Howard’s birth, and he was the theme of the 2006 World Fantasy Convention in Austin, Texas.
Robert Ervin Howard was born on January 22, 1906, in Peaster, Texas, about 45 miles southwest of Fort Worth. He was the only child of Isaac Mordecai Howard, who was a country doctor, and Hester Jane Ervin Howard. The family moved several times all over Texas and, in 1919, finally settled in Cross Plains, an oil town in central Texas.
Howard became an avid reader early, perhaps nurtured by his mother, who loved poetry. Howard had a few close friends as he grew up, but none of them shared his love of reading. He read very fast and had perfect retention. His personal library grew to include mostly history and fiction, but also biography, sports, poetry, anthropology, works on Texas, and erotica. He also had a passion for oral storytelling. He wrote his first story when he was nine or ten.
As the Cross Plains school only went up to tenth grade, Howard and his mother moved to Brownwood, Texas, so he could finish high school. There, he met Truett Vinson and Clyde Smith, who would be his friends for life and who encouraged his writing. Indeed, Howard’s literary career got underway when he was in high school. Five of his stories were published in the high school paper, The Tattler, but a wider audience was on the horizon.
The first story Howard submitted to a magazine was “Bill Smalley and the Power of the Human Eye.” He sent it to Western Story and Adventure in 1921, but it was rejected by both. He found success at age 18 with the acceptance of “Spear and Fang” by Weird Tales in 1924. This story, about a Cro-Magnon rescuing his mate from a Neanderthal, showed early his penchant for ancient settings.
After he finished high school, Howard and his mother returned to Cross Plains. He resisted his father’s urgings to go to college and become a doctor as he detested school – and he wanted to be a writer, to be his own boss. But his writing brought in only a meager income at the time, so Howard was forced to work a number of jobs, including private secretary, assistant to a geologist, oil-field reporter for various newspapers, public stenographer, and a soda jerk.
Discouraged by his lack of success at writing, in the fall of 1926, he enrolled in a bookkeeping course at Howard Payne College in Brownwood, Texas. He did not give up on writing, though. He wrote humorous pieces for the college newspaper, The Yellow Jacket, and he continued submitting to Weird Tales and other magazines.
He finished his college work in 1928 and began in earnest to make it as a writer. It soon became clear that he would succeed, and he never worked at any other job. He had already had a few stories published in Weird Tales, and in 1928, the magazine published four of his stories and five of his poems. After that, his stories and poems appeared in nearly three out of every four issues of Weird Tales.
In 1928, the first of a series of recurring characters appeared: Solomon Kane, a Puritan swordsman who travels the world to avenge wrongs. Seven Kane stories appeared in Weird Tales from 1928 to 1932. In 1929, another series character was born: King Kull, a savage from Atlantis. “The Shadow Kingdom” (Weird Tales, August 1929) was the first Kull story, and many consider it to be the first true example of sword-and-sorcery, with its blending of heroic adventure, fantasy, and horror. Many of the Kull stories, however, did not see print until collected in book form in 1967.
By 1929 and 1930, besides being a regular contributor to Weird Tales, he also got into Fight Stories, with the tales of Sailor Steve Costigan, and Oriental Stories, with humorous adventures set in the Far East. He also had stories published in Ghost Stories and Argosy.
In 1930, Howard began a correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, which would continue robustly until Howard’s death, with the two writers debating many issues. At first, Howard would defer to Lovecraft, but he later asserted his own views more strongly. This correspondence inspired Howard to try writing Lovecraftian stories. These included “The Children of the Night,” “The Thing on the Roof,” and “The Black Stone,” which introduced Howard’s own contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos.
Howard turned his attention to his native Texas in 1932, penning frontier stories with weird twists, such as “Pigeons from Hell,” “The Horror from the Mound,” “Old Garfield’s Heart,” and “The Man on the Ground.” He then created the rollicking hero Breckinridge Elkins, whose tales appeared in every issue of Action Stories beginning in early 1934 and continuing until after his death.
The November 1932 issue of Weird Tales saw the introduction of another popular character: Bran Mak Morn, a barbaric king of the Pict people of Britain, who battled the encroaching Roman legions.
The December 1932 issue of Weird Tales brought to the world Howard’s most famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian, in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Conan was a savage sword-fighter who lived in the mythical Hyborian age, which ran from the sinking of Atlantis to the dawn of recorded human history. Over the next four years, 17 Conan stories, some serialized, graced the pages of Weird Tales.
In 1934, a new schoolteacher, Novalyne Price, arrived in Cross Plains. Howard had met her a year earlier, and after she moved to his town, an up-and-down relationship between the two ensued. They were both feisty, independent people who shared the same interests but also had major differences. Their relationship ended in the spring of 1936 when Novalyne moved to Louisiana to pursue graduate studies.
Howard reached the height of his output in early 1936. His stories were appearing regularly in Weird Tales, Action Stories, Spicy Adventure Stories, Argosy, Sport Story, Strange Detective, and others. Also, the Kirby O’Donnell and Francis X. Gordon (“El Borak”) adventure series appeared in Street & Smith’s magazines.
Pulp writers achieved success in one of two ways. The first was by creating a popular character who would have readers clamoring for more stories and editors thus buying them. The other path was to be able to write a wide variety of stories that could sell to the many pulp titles of the time. Howard was such a success because he was a versatile writer and he created several popular characters. However, unlike other writers who could pen unlimited tales of their characters, Howard always eventually reached a point where he couldn’t write any more about one of his characters. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet proposed that this was because each character represented a different stage in Howard’s emotional growth, and he would psychologically outgrow them and have to move on to another character.
In the mid-1930s, Howard was increasingly worried over his mother’s health, which had never been good. Medical bills were mounting, creating financial pressure on the family. His father was forced to move his medical practice into their home, making it difficult for Howard to concentrate on his writing. After his mother underwent surgery in 1935, she never regained her health, required frequent medical treatment, and eventually slipped into a coma on June 8, 1936. He had often talked of suicide, being tired of the grinding struggle of life, and made careful plans for taking his own life. He arranged for the handling of his unsubmitted manuscripts after his death, borrowed a gun, and purchased burial plots for his parents and himself. On June 11, 1936, after hearing his mother would never emerge from the coma, he wrote a suicide poem and then shot himself at his home in Cross Plains. He was only 30.
Many editions and collections of Howard’s work came out in the years following his death. Arkham House published a collection, Skull-Face and Others in 1946. In the 1950s, Gnome Press published the Conan stories in hardcover. Conan paperbacks came out in the 1960s, popularizing Howard’s work.
Several movies have been made based on Conan and one on Kull. “Pigeons from Hell” was made into an episode of Boris Karloff’s TV series Thriller. Howard’s romance with Novalyne Price is the subject of the film The Whole Wide World (1996).
In the 1980s, a community group in Cross Plains purchased the Howard home and restored it. Each June, Cross Plains holds Robert E. Howard Day. The wildfires in Cross Plains a few years ago spared the Howard home.
Many trade paperback collections of Howard’s work are readily available in a variety of bookstores. Wildside Press and the University of Nebraska Press have available a large number of books in both hardcover and trade paperback. Girasol Collectables Inc. has produced a number of Howard collections, some in facsimile format, as well as facsimiles of various pulp magazines in which his fiction appeared.