Writers are often asked where their story ideas originate. It is a question that writers sometimes have trouble answering. The final product only comes from imagination and a lot of work. One of many great Texas writers, Robert E. Howard, had a significant cultural impact in a short career and certainly put in a lot of work. His publishing career lasted only 12 years, but he produced hundreds of stories. Guided by his imagination and love for storytelling, Howard became a popular writer, whose influence was felt far beyond his short life.
Robert Ervin Howard was born in January 1906 in Peaster, a tiny community west of Fort Worth. His father, Dr. Isaac M. Howard, was a physician. The family moved often but finally settled in the small town of Cross Plains, between Brownwood and Abilene, in 1919.
As a youngster, he absorbed the tales told to him, from ghost stories to folk tales to war stories from surviving Civil War veterans, and developed a great love of reading. In particular, he enjoyed reading tales of ancient cultures and civilizations. By all accounts, he had an excellent memory and noticed details very easily, but he disliked authority and often had problems with his teachers. He decided at an early age to be a writer. By the age of 15, he was quickly writing stories and sending them off to various magazines in hopes of being published. Like many young writers, he faced rejection after rejection for his stories. He pushed forward nevertheless, propelled by his own faith in his writing and his love of storytelling.
He moved to nearby Brownwood in 1922 to complete high school. He began writing for the school newspaper where his first stories were published. After graduation in spring 1923, he returned home and worked a series of odd jobs while trying to start his writing career. He briefly attended Howard Payne College in Brownwood.
In 1924, he sold his first story, the tale of a caveman called “Spear and Fang” for $16 in a magazine called Weird Tales. Over time, many of his short stories were published in Weird Tales, which included short stories and novellas from the most popular science fiction and horror writers of the day. He enjoyed a warm correspondence with such famed writers of the times as horror novelist H. P. Lovecraft.
Howard said that he enjoyed the freedom that writing offered and sometimes labored at his stories for up to 18 hours per day. In 1932, he sold the first of his Conan stories, creating a series of stories based on a mythical barbarian. He created similar stories with other characters, either a king building empires or a lone adventurer. Some of these tales took place in mythic lands while others took place in more modern times. His stories included tales of fantasy, horror, mystery, and westerns. His Steve Harrison series involved a detective and almost supernatural mysteries. By the mid-1930s, Howard was writing more western stories, including the bumbling cowboy “Breckinridge Elkins” and the more dramatic adventures of “The Sonora Kid.” Eventually, he was able to pull together a comfortable living from his stories.
Howard never married, but he did have a relationship with a local teacher, Novalyne Price. Stories of his erratic behavior circulated, and biographers have sifted through his works trying to find clues as to his final months and years. The collapse of his mother’s health and her impending death deeply grieved him.
He was unable to cope with whatever internal demons continued to haunt him. In early June 1936, he bought a family cemetery plot in Brownwood and returned to his mother’s bedside. After she fell into a coma and after learning that she would not recover, Howard committed suicide. He was 30 years old.
Years after his death, Howard’s works continued to enjoy a wide popularity, more than he ever had during his lifetime. Many manuscripts were found and later published. His works now appear in more than 20 languages around the world. Perhaps his most famous series became a series of movies starting with “Conan the Barbarian,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 1982.
Novalyne Price herself later relocated to Louisiana where she enjoyed a long career as a teacher and a writer. She published three books, two of which were about her memories of Howard. Her 1986 memoir of Howard, “One Who Walked Alone,” was adapted into the movie “The Whole Wide World” in 1996 with Vincent D’Onofrio and Texas actress Renee Zellweger.
Howard’s home in Cross Plains has since become a museum, complete with the typewriter he used for so many of his stories. Each June the community hosts “Robert E. Howard Days,” a celebration of his works and impact on writing.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org