For this installment of Those Who Came Before we have Robert E. Howard, creator of one of the 20th century’s biggest literary, movie, and comic stars.
Robert E. Howard lived on this earth for just 30 years, from January 1906 to June 1936, but he left quite a legacy. He is regarded by many as the father of the sword and sorcery genre. One of his creations in particular has been synonymous with that type of fiction since its birth before World War II. In the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales, Howard’s story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” introduced the world to Conan the Cimmerian. Yep, that guy in the shirt and tie created the greatest sword wielding barbarian of them all.
Howard’s Early Life
Howard was raised in Texas, and spent many of his young days in small towns, his father moving the family several times. He was influenced by a number of people and experiences as a result of this upbringing. Growing up, he had the opportunity to hear the stories of Civil War veterans, former slaves, Texas Rangers, and plenty of others who had lived through the tougher times in old frontier towns. These encounters helped to shape his view of life in general, which is clearly seen in his work. He did not grow up believing the world to be a wonderful place full of happy people. The rough lives he gave to his characters testify to that dim outlook.
There were interesting developments in his home of Cross Plains, Texas that contributed to young Mr. Howard’s attitude as well. That little town of a couple thousand people was periodically transformed by oil booms. When the oil was flowing, people flooded into town, swelling its population dramatically. There were oil workers, and a bunch of other people trying to make money off of them, both entrepreneurs and crooks alike.
I’ll say one thing about an oil boom: it will teach a kid that life’s a pretty rotten thing about as quick as anything I can think of.
Robert E. Howard, 1931
Howard spent much of his young adult life in seeming isolation. His mother, with whom he spent much of his time, was sick from tuberculosis for much of his life. This situation ultimately led to tragedy later on.
Robert E. Howard loved stories of all kinds. He was a voracious reader, whose tastes included, but weren’t in any way limited to: fiction, history, poetry, anthropology, and sports. He often amazed his friends with the sheer number of books he read, as well as the speed with which he completed them. In addition to his speed, he was able to remember what he read, memorizing some books after reading them as few as two times.
He also loved oral storytelling, both as a listener and a storyteller. As a child, Howard would frequently treat his friends to stories, often getting some of them to act out his tales. He loved learning, too, and would seek out those with interesting stories to share. These included the family cook, who was a former slave, and also some of the old timers with their firsthand accounts of the pioneer days.
This love stuck with him as he grew older and began his professional writing career. His neighbors would often hear him telling his stories aloud as he typed them well into the night. Marathons of well over twelve hours at the typewriter were not uncommon for this prolific writer. He turned out more stories and new characters for the pulp magazines of his day than many of his contemporaries.
Howard began writing at an early age, and by 15 he was working toward the goal of being a professional writer. He absolutely loved the freedom that came with it. No punching a time clock, no slaving away at a demanding job for 12 -14 hours a day. Instead, he would happily work fourteen hour days, and longer, at his typewriter. He began to realize his goal at the age of 18, when he sold his first story. From that point on, until his death twelve years later, he would continue to enjoy the freedom that he so highly valued.
Sadness & Despair
Depression and suicide afflict millions. The suffering they cause ripples outward to engulf the family and friends of those who are struggling with these behemoths. Robert E. Howard’s fight was no different. He had talked and thought of suicide for years before his death. He planned, prepared, and had thoroughly gotten his affairs in order. In June of 1936, Howard’s mother was in a coma, experiencing what would turn out to be the final days of her life. She had been battling serious illness for years, and was not expected to regain consciousness.
After learning of his mother’s condition, Howard chose to end his own life. He shot himself in the head, while sitting in the front seat of his car, parked in front of his family home. The following day, his mother died. A double funeral was held.
All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over and the lamps expire.
Robert E. Howard, June 1936
The above text, found in Howard’s wallet upon his death, is generally accepted as his suicide note.
There has been much speculation as to why he did it. Some have said that he couldn’t handle outliving his mother. Some say that his reasons stretched far beyond the pain of witnessing his mother’s suffering. I won’t try to figure that out, it doesn’t matter now anyway. His death was a tragedy.
Conan immediately comes to mind, and rightly so. Whereas Howard was a prolific writer, also having created Red Sonya, he will always be known as the man who created Conan the Barbarian.
The biggest, baddest barbarian of all will probably be around for as long as we have comic books and movies on the big screen. There have been novels, comics, toys, cartoons, and movies. Conan continues to endure. The character first formed in Howard’s mind during a trip through a small Texas border town, along the Rio Grande. From Texas to the whole world, Conan has carried his creator’s name far and wide. With a new movie coming out this year, Conan’s adventures will be presented to yet another generation.
Who knows how much of the sword and sorcery genre we would have, had it not been for the contributions of Robert E. Howard way back in the 1930s. What’s more, without Conan and Red Sonya, would we even want sword and sorcery stories?
I’ll leave you with some images depicting just a handful of Conan’s different looks over the years.