Texas town home to writer who created Conan the Barbarian
Originally published Monday, May 14, 2018 at 06:00a.m.
Originally published Monday, May 14, 2018 at 06:00a.m.
CROSS PLAINS, Texas (AP) — On a wall in the backroom of the Howard residence on the edge of town, home in the 1920s and '30s to Dr. and Mrs. Isaac Howard and their son, Robert, is a map of the world festooned with dozens of multicolored dots.
The Houston Chronicle reports each dot represents a visitor to the little white-frame house; a quick glance suggests that more countries are dotted than not.
The visitors are pilgrims, so to speak, journeying to a West Texas hamlet, population 982, to pay homage to a young man whose stories continue to be devoured by millions more than 80 years after his death. Like Elvis devotees journeying to Graceland, they are drawn to the home (now museum) of a small-town Texan who arguably invented the "sword and sorcery" genre of fire-breathing dragons, beautiful princesses, evil wizards and indestructible warriors.
Robert E. Howard is his name. In the words of East Texas novelist Joe Lansdale, the man from Cross Plains "is a writer of worth, working with dirty hands and a snotty nose sometimes, but flexing strong muscles that even hardcore literature fanatics ought to take note of."
In a career lasting barely a dozen years, Howard published more than 200 fantasy stories in Weird Tales, Action Stories, Oriental Stories, Argosy, Spicy Adventure, Strange Detective and other pulp magazines of the day. He also published 350 poems and three novels.
His best-known character is, of course, Conan the Barbarian, denizen of the Hyborian Age, a world that in his creator's fevered, fertile mind existed after the destruction of Atlantis and before the rise of known ancient civilizations. Before "Game of Thrones" and similar fantasies, Howard invented epochs, created races and wrote with such charged energy that his work, as Stephen King has noted, "nearly gives off sparks."
Museum volunteer Arlene Stephenson was recently showing four visitors the site of a National Park Service archaeological dig near the back door of the Howard house. Three of the visitors were from Atlanta, their friend from Green Bay, Wisconsin. They were football fans flying into Dallas to take in the NFL draft, but they had rented a car and had made the 400-mile round trip to this little town near Brownwood to visit the home of "the single-most energetic, page-turning writer I've ever known."
That's how Chris Wiese described Howard as he and his friends stood in the backyard near the dig, where archaeologists a couple of days earlier had uncovered a cellar containing canned preserves. Weiss said he discovered the king of pulp fiction as a youngster. Thus inspired, he now runs Holistic Designs Inc., an Atlanta-based multimedia company that produces online games set in pre-ancient civilizations like the Hyborian Age. For Wiese and his wife, Tracy, only the Green Bay Packers approach the star-crossed writer from Cross Plains as objects of their affection.
Robert Ervin Howard was born in 1906 in Peaster, west of Fort Worth. His father was a country doctor who moved his family every year or so from one oil-boom town to the next until 1919, when he set up his practice in Cross Plains. Howard's mother, Hester Jane Ervin Howard, suffered from tuberculosis and was preternaturally devoted to her only child. The intense feeling was mutual, perhaps in part because the doctor was emotionally distant from his son and couldn't fathom his burning desire to be a writer.
In one of a number of letters to H.P. Lovecraft, master of the classic horror tale, Howard said he wrote his first story when he was 8 or 9 and began trying to get stories published at 15. He was 18 when he made his first professional sale, a short story called "Spear and Fang" in which a Cro-Magnon rescues his mate from a Neanderthal. Weird Tales bought it, the first of many Howard tales the magazine would run.
Banging out stories on an Underwood typewriter in his tiny bedroom, shouting out the slam-bang dialogue to himself as he typed, Howard would be lost in other worlds for as long as 18 hours at a stretch. In the midst of the Depression, he was supporting himself as a writer by age 22.
Howard said that "Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures."
Howard scholars believe the "little border town" was Mission, where the Howard family visited in 1932. A memory of the Hill Country outside Fredericksburg seems to have given him a terrain for his hero. Apparently the "endless vista — hill on hill, slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers" transported Howard out of Texas and into Conan's exotic world.
In his brief career, the prolific Howard also wrote about boxers, gunslingers, bootleggers, Comanches, detectives, Texas Rangers and pirates. Constantly feeding the maw of the pulp magazines, constantly creating new characters, new worlds, new adventures, he wrote like a man possessed.
On June 11, 1936, the 30-year-old writer learned that his mother would probably not regain consciousness from a coma brought on by her TB. He walked out to his car and took a .38 Colt automatic out of the glove compartment. Sitting behind the steering wheel, he held the gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger. He lived for eight hours; his mother died the next day.
For a long time, Cross Plains didn't know what to make of the strange young man who had lived and worked among them. "My mother told me that if you saw him walking down the street, you'd cross to the other side," a Cross Plains native recently recalled.
His acolytes knew. In 1986, a half century after Howard's death, a gathering of sword and sorcery fans and scholars converged on Cross Plains for a weekend of sharing about their favorite writer. They've made their way back every year since. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Conan the Barbarian" movies in the early '80s also contributed to a resurgence of interest in the author, as did the 1996 film "The Whole Wide World" starring Vincent D'Onofrio as Howard and a young Renée Zellweger as his girlfriend, Novalyne Price Ellis. (The movie is based on Ellis' memoir.)
In 1992, a volunteer group dedicated to preserving local history and calling itself Project Pride purchased the Howard house. Stephenson was part of that effort.
"We were determined to do something to make Cross Plains proud," she told me last week. "We realized we had a history here, and we should take pride in it."
On the second weekend in June, as usual, Cross Plains will welcome several hundred "Howard Heads" back to town. The locals have come to realize that a little country town struggling to stay alive needs every edge it can find.
"At first," Stephenson said, "their concept of Howard was Conan, a big, muscular guy dragging women around. We had to get people past that. Now they're realizing the world is at our doorstep. People come here. And they spend money."