Today marks the 107th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Howard, the quintessential American pulp author best-known for creating Conan the Barbarian.
REH, as he known to fans, had an incredibly prolific and all-too-short career lasting from roughly 1929-’36. His powerful, evocative writing has always been an influence on my own writing, almost as much as H.P. Lovecraft. Like Lovecraft, Howard had a talent for painting lush, detailed scenes in only a few evocative words — although literary critics like S.T. Joshi dismissed REH’s prose as “subliterary hackwork that does not even begin to approach genuine literature.”
But, hey, Howard did much more than unleash a barbarian on pop culture. He helped shape modern pop culture by fathering the “sword and sorcery” subgenre of fantasy and contributing to Lovecraft’s horror mythos. Howard came up with a number of other vivid characters, including Solomon Kane, Kull the Conqueror, Sailor Steve Costigan, Cormac Mac Art, Bran Mac Morn, El Borak and James Allison — notable for being disabled. I have previously looked at REH’s life, which tragically ended in suicide, so now I turn to his literary output.
In 1928, Howard sold a story starring the Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane called “Red Shadows” to Weird Tales, a magazine that would become one of his most reliable markets. His other go-to pulp was Fight Stories, for which he created Sailor Steve Costigan, a mariner with hands of stone — and head full of rocks to match — and sold many stories. (Costigan was an exaggerated version of Howard himself.)
By the time he was just 23 years old, Howard was able quick his odd jobs and support himself as a professional writer. In fact, REH would soon become the best-paid man in hometown of Cross Plains, Texas.
In 1930, REH wrote a letter to Weird Tales praising the story “The Rats in the Walls,” by Lovecraft. Editor Farnsworth Wright forwarded the missive to Lovecraft, who wrote back to Howard, establishing a longstanding friendship by correspondence that would influence the writing of each. Howard borrowed supernatural elements for his own stories, and contributed tales to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.
When the Great Depression ravaged the pulp market, REH lost Fight Stories and several other markets he depended upon. To make matters worse, Howard lost most of his assets in consecutive bank failures. But REH bounced back in 1932 with his greatest character, Conan.
Conan had a long gestation period, and — unusually for Howard — he did not abandon the character when his first three stories and a synopsis were rejected by Weird Tales. Instead, he reworked the pieces, and eventually sold two. “The Phoenix on the Sword” appeared in December 1932. The other was “The Tower of the Elephant,” which is one of my favorites.
By 1934, Howard was losing interest in Conan and Weird Tales owed him over $1,500 in late payments. (Howard eventually sold a total of 17 Conan stories to WT.) That’s when Howard turned to a new character, Breckenridge Elkins, who starred in humorous “Tall Tale” Westerns for Action Stories. The character was so successful that magazines like Argosy and Cowboy Stories demanded REH do similar characters for them!
By 1936, Howard was writing Westerns almost exclusively, including a novel, A Gent From Bear Creek. However, in June of that year his beloved mother, Hester — to whom REH was completely devoted — lay near death in a coma after decades of battling tuberculosis. On the morning of June 11, a nurse told Howard that his mother would never wake up. REH walked out to his car in the driveway and shot himself in the head with a .380 Colt Automatic. He lingered for eight hours, dying at about 4 p.m. His mother died the next day, and double funeral was held on June 14, 1936.
REH left a suicide note in his typewriter featuring just these haunting words from the poem “The House of Caesar,” by Viola Garvin:
“All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over, and the lamps expire.”