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3:AM Cult Hero: Robert E. Howard


(Robert E. Howard.  Studio portrait, 1934)

The 1920s and 30s were a golden time for the pulp magazine – where writers could fire the imaginations of their readers with far-off lands and unforgettable characters.  Many of the writers of that era were hacks, but the pulps had plenty of geniuses, great writers and eccentrics.  One of the most successful pulp writers was for a time overshadowed by his unforgettable characters, although recently his own name is being recognized more and more: Robert Ervin Howard.

Howard was born in 1906 in Peaster, Texas, a small town in the north of that state.  When he was a teenager, his family settled in Cross Plains, a few years before an oil discovery put the town on the map.

Howard was well-read.  He particularly enjoyed the fantasy stories of Rudyard Kipling, Jack London and Thomas Bulfinch.  But then he started reading Adventure magazine and its star authors Harold Lamb and Talbot Mundy.  He then decided to become a professional writer.

Adventure was always his goal, but he never got published there.  The heroes in that storied pulp were intelligent and cunning, while Howards were brutish and strong.  His first success was the story “Sword and Fang,” published by Weird Tales in 1925.  Howard became a regular contribute to the legendary pulp while it was edited by the equally legendary Farnsworth Wright.  Wright would also publish works by H. P. Lovecraft, Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith during his time at the magazine.

Howard first struck gold in 1928 when Tales published his story “The Shadow Kingdom.”  It’s main character was Kull, a barbarian.  That same year, Tales published “Red Shadows” which featured Solomon Kane.  Both of these characters would star in dozens of later stories.

By this time, Howard was a full-time writer.  Another character, Steve Costigan, allowed him to indulge in writing about one of his pastimes: boxing.  Howard had a formidable physique which E. Hoffman Price found at odds with the sensitive poet he was.

In 1932, Howard created his most famous character: Conan the Barbarian.  Along with his Kull stories, the stories of Conan invented the “sword-and-sorcery” genre of fantasy.

Howard expanded the magazines he wrote for during this time, writing for Fight Stories, Ghost Stories and Wright’s new project Oriental Stories.  But by 1936, he wanted to move on to westerns.  His Breckenridge Elkins stories had been his most successful series and a novel he created from that series “A Gent From Bear Creek” was about to be published by Herbert Jenkins (who also published many of P. G. Wodehouse’s early “Jeeves” novels).

But Howard was not well.  Neither was his mother, who he was very close to.  She slipped into a coma in June 1936 and on June 11th, he was told by a nurse that she would never wake again.  He walked outside, grabbed a shotgun from the glove compartment of his car and shot himself in the head.  He lived for another 8 hours. His mother died the following day.

Fans, authors and scholars of Howard’s work have speculated on the nature of his suicide, some of them including speculation of an Oedipus complex.  L. Sprague de Camp’s study of Howard “Dark Valley of Destiny” has been criticized by Howard scholars for its fixation on Howard’s mental state and its attempt to justify du Camp’s Freudian theories about him.

Robert E. Howard’s work has been overshadowed by the various media incarnations of Conan and to a lesser extent by Red Sonya, another of his characters.  His body of work is vast and varied.  But through all of it runs poetry and great poetic images.  It is action packed and exciting.  His stories are masterfully told, giving atmosphere and moods with only a few words.

Robert E. Howard’s writing is aggressive and has a burning intensity, much like the man himself.  Like his characters, he plunged into his work – what he felt was his duty – with a herculean muscle which he kept even when committing death.

MORE: Howard’s work:Project Gutenberg Australia, Arthur’s Classic Novels // Bibliography // Studies: REHupa , The Crossplainsman, REH: Two-gun Raconteur // “One Who Walked Alone” memoir of Howard’s girlfriend Novalyne Price Ellis // “The Whole Wide World” film based on the book: Official site, Review (The Barbarian Keep)

First posted: Friday, December 17th, 2010.

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