Magazine | July 29, 2019, Issue

The Fantastic Robert E. Howard

Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian (IMDb, Universal Pictures)
Conan the Barbarian’s creator is finally remembered in his hometown.

Cross Plains, Texas — We start where it ended. “The car would have been sitting just about here,” says Jack Baum, a few feet behind the Robert E. Howard Museum. A small group of us take it in. Several of us squirm. This is the spot where the pulp writer put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. When he killed himself in his car in 1936, the creator of Conan the Barbarian — one of the most iconic characters to spring from American fiction — was 30 years old.

The suicide has colored Howard’s reputation ever since, and perhaps nowhere more than in the small Texas town where he spent most of his life. “I grew up here and went to school here and never had one of his stories put in front of me,” says Baum, who on June 7 led a bus tour of Howard sites in and around Cross Plains, as part of an annual celebration called “Howard Days.” Baum is a retired oilman and dentist — “I drilled wells and I drilled teeth” — who in 1995 inherited the rights to some of Howard’s works. “That’s the first time I ever heard of him.”

Baum had heard of Conan, of course. Who hasn’t? He’s at least as familiar as Tarzan and Buck Rogers, who also burst into pop culture from pulp magazines. In 1970, Marvel Comics launched a series based on the brawny hero. In 1982, the character reached movie theaters in a breakout role for Arnold Schwarzenegger. More recently, Conan has become a staple of video games. Here’s a very 2019 way to think about his abiding influence: Without Conan, there’s possibly no Game of Thrones

Behind all the fantasy, however, is the story of a real person with a remarkable if troubled mind as well as a community that once snubbed and now seeks to recover him. There’s also a tale of amateurism in the best sense of the word — an activity pursued for love rather than money. Conan may be big business in comics and on screens, but he’d be nowhere without the fans who have looked after the legacy of his maker.

Robert Ervin Howard was born in 1906 to a country doctor and his wife in Peaster, Texas. The family bounced from town to town before settling in 1919 in Cross Plains, which today is about a two-hour drive west of Fort Worth. It’s a sleepy hamlet with a single stoplight, a barber who opens his shop on Wednesdays, and horse ties still embedded in the sidewalks along Main Street. On the bus tour, we pause at an abandoned hotel that looks like a haunted house. Cross Plains is no ghost town — it has 982 people, according to a sign on its outskirts, and there are authentic ghost towns nearby — but everywhere are the relics of its boomtown past, when the discovery of oil about a century ago pushed its population to as many as 3,000 people.

As a boy, Howard showed promise. “I believe that someday you will be one of our major writers,” wrote a teacher in the margin of a paper. “Develop your talent.” And so he did, submitting short stories to the cheaply printed pulp magazines that were a chief form of entertainment before the rise of radio and television. He enjoyed his first success in 1924, when “Spear and Fang,” featuring cavemen, appeared in Weird Tales, which at the time was a minor publication but today is recognized for having developed the talent of not only Howard but also H. P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury.

Writers can be eccentric and Howard fits the stereotype. He was both jock and nerd, boxing at a local icehouse as well as reading voraciously. He often shouted out his stories, full of violent exploits, as he clacked away on his typewriter for pulps such as Fight Stories, Spicy-Adventure Stories, and Thrilling Adventures. According to one legend, a neighbor complained about the late-night racket to Howard’s mother. She defended her son: “He’s working.”

His most popular characters include Solomon Kane, a gun-slinging Puritan; Kull, a swashbuckler from Atlantis; and Bran Mak Morn, a Pictish warlord who battled the Romans in ancient Britain. These tales mix real and made-up history with monsters and magic. The sword-and-sorcery genre may trace its deepest roots to the Odyssey, but it owes much of its modern heritage to Howard’s inventions. 

His oeuvre is full of hackwork: The pulps commonly paid by the word and Howard was happy to deliver words in bulk, allowing quantity to overwhelm quality. Moreover, his views on race and sex are about what you’d expect from a young man who grew up in rural Texas when he did. They infect what he produced. Some words and passages are unbearable.

Yet he also wrote terrific yarns. A handful of the best involve Conan, a death-dealing rogue who made his debut in 1932 and went on to star in about two dozen stories that might be called the “Conan canon.” Rather than a cradle-to-grave narrative, they recount episodes from the rollicking life of a man born in the savage wilderness of Cimmeria (a name borrowed from Homer or Herodotus). As Conan travels through a distantly prehistoric version of our own world, he is at turns a thief, a mercenary, and a king. The stories are heavy on action — Howard could write action scenes as well as anybody — but they also explore the nature of honor and courage. A central theme, drawn from the observations of a young man who witnessed the booms and busts of West Texas, is the conflict between barbarism and civilization. 

When I was a kid, I devoured Howard’s stories in a series of Ace paperbacks with vivid covers by the artist Frank Frazetta. Some of my favorite boyhood memories are of reading them — and the same is true for many of the mostly male fans at Howard Days. Rereading them today is at least in part an exercise in nostalgia, but biographer David C. Smith put it succinctly in this year’s keynote address in Cross Plains: “He casts a spell.” Howard’s best works are classics of the genre. “The Tower of the Elephant” is a hard-boiled heist. “Queen of the Black Coast” is a pirate tale and a love story. “Beyond the Black River” is about survival on a deadly frontier, much like a good western. They hold up well.

What hasn’t held up well — or didn’t for a long time — is Howard’s reputation. Suicide can do that, especially in a conservative, churchgoing town such as Cross Plains. (Howard killed himself after his mother, to whom he was devoted, slipped into a fatal coma.) Moreover, a lot of people objected to the graphic content of his stories, even though they’re tame by 21st-century standards. “He wasn’t spoken about,” says Era Lee Hanke, an 89-year-old docent at the museum. “People thought he was crazy. Those who knew him didn’t want anything to do with him.” And so Cross Plains banished Howard from its communal memory.

Meanwhile, a band of devotees from elsewhere struggled to keep his work alive. Books began to appear in the 1940s and 1950s. Howard wasn’t always well served by editors who tinkered with his tales, making it hard for readers to tell the difference between Howard’s work and pastiches. He also remained confined within the ghetto of fantasy fiction, commonly scorned as escapist nonsense. But at least he was in print. When Marvel Comics sought to start a macho-man sword-and-sorcery series, it knew exactly where to go. 

The comics may have helped make Conan a household name, but they did little to elevate the reputation of Howard as a serious writer. Into the 1980s, Howard remained an obscure figure — and he was essentially forgotten in Cross Plains. 

Then Rusty Burke came to town. “I had read the comics,” he says. “They led me to Howard’s stories.” They became his nights-and-weekends passion — and when he found himself transferred to Houston in 1985, he and a friend decided to make a pilgrimage to the hometown of their favorite scribe. “We didn’t know anything about Cross Plains,” he says. “All we had was a photo of Howard’s house.” They drove around until they finally found it, privately owned and unavailable for visiting. “Other than that, there wasn’t much to see,” says Burke. “It did show me that for Howard to have written what he did from this little place, he must have had a staggering imagination.”

So began a series of organized trips, in which Burke and fellow fans connected with the locals — and the locals suddenly recognized what they had on their hands. In 1989, after Howard’s old home went up for sale, Project Pride, a community group that sponsors cancer walks and puts up Christmas decorations, snapped it up. 

Over the years, the white-clapboard house has gone through careful renovation. “We brought it back to how it looked when Howard wrote in the 1930s,” says Arlene Stephenson, who has been involved from the start — and who didn’t know anything about Howard until Burke showed up in Cross Plains. For most of the year, the Robert E. Howard Museum is open only by appointment, and the best time to see it is during Howard Days.

About 200 people attended at least one of this year’s events. “It’s like a family reunion of Howard fans,” says Bill Cavalier, a retired sign-maker from Indiana who has come for years. We ate chicken-fried steak at a dinner banquet that featured Smith’s talk. During the day, we sat through panel discussions with Rob Roehm, who has scoured Texas land records and newspaper archives for information about the Howards, and remarks by Patrice Louinet, a Frenchman who is writing his Ph.D. dissertation at the Sorbonne on Howard. 

Beneath a tent on the museum grounds, the Robert E. Howard Foundation, chaired by Burke, released its 22nd and final book. “Every known scrap of Howard’s writings is published now,” says Paul Herman, an editor. He estimates that the total word count is about 3.5 million. Students at Cross Plains High School at last read a fraction of them, thanks to Janna Austin, an English teacher who moved to Cross Plains nine years ago. “I hadn’t heard of Howard before coming here, but I think it’s important for students to know what someone from this town once accomplished,” she says.

Soon, the state of Texas will put an official historical marker outside the museum. Howard’s life may have ended in a car and under a cloud — but his afterlife endures, tended by people who refuse to forget.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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