The date Jan. 22 has been important to me since I was a lad, because it marks the anniversary of the birth of pulp author Robert E. Howard in 1906. One of my true favorites, Howard is most famous for creating Conan the Cimmerian, but his oeuvre also included such colorful characters as King Kull, Cormac Mac Art, El Borak, Sailor Steve Costigan, and another particular favorite, Solomon Kane, a Puritan adventurer (and soon to be a movie). This was evocative stuff for a youngster, and Howard was the first writer I ever tried to emulate. I loved writing my own Conan stories.
I was introduced to Howard through the Marvel Comics series Conan the Barbarian, which adapted Howard’s most influential creation. As often happened when I was younger, I was inspired to track down the books that inspired the comics. The short stories and novels were colorful and quick reads that conjured amazingly vivid worlds. I loved the Conan Mythos; set in a universe Howard dubbed the Hyborian Age, a time before recorded history when men stood against magic and monsters. I was disappointed that Howard’s Conan output was limited, and after voraciously reading everything he had written, I moved on to pastiches written by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter based on unfinished manuscripts, story fragments, proposals, etc., as well as other authors like Bjorn Nyberg and Andrew J. Offutt. They all tried hard to ape Howard’s dynamic prose, but there was only one master. I personally always thought comics scribe Roy Thomas best captured Howard’s voice. Later I learned that Howard was a contemporary of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft; the two corresponded, and Howard made significant contributions to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.
Howard’s hardscrabble life was unhappy and tragically brief. Born and raised in Texas, Howard found his outlet penning tales of high fantasy, and almost single-handedly created the sword & sorcery genre. Howard sold his tales of sword-wielding barbarians, space adventurers and two-fisted sailors to the pulp magazines of the day, most notably Weird Tales – often for mere pennies per word. However, it was said that during the Great Depression, Howard earned more money than anyone else in his hometown of Cross Plains. Howard claimed Conan was an amalgamation of various wildcatters, cowboys and drifters he met while working the oil fields of Texas, however Howard gave his uncivilized adventurer a strict code of honor that set him apart from mere savages. Howard never married; he was extremely close to his mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, and in June of 1936, after learning that she had slipped into an irreversible coma, Howard committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Just 30 years old, he left behind a brief note, the words of which have long haunted me:
All fled–all done, so lift me on the pyre; The feast is over, and the lamps expire.
Howard’s intriguing life was chronicled in the 1996 indie movie The Whole Wide World, which starred Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger as schoolteacher Novalyne Price, his dear friend, who eventually wrote the biography One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard the Final Years. The mercurial D’Onofrio perfectly embodies the haunted genius/awkward young man, and the film captures the peculiar thrill of writing and seeing your work published.
When I was younger I used to draw a picture of Conan every year on this date. Now I’ve moved on to blog entries. Happy birthday, R.E.H.