Aug 17 2011 3:00pm

The Creator of Conan, Part 2: The Death and Life of Robert E. Howard

Part two of a three part series. Check back at this link to read them all.

Robert E. Howard committed suicide at the age of thirty. While that no more sums up who he was and why he matters than it is adequate to say that William Shakespeare was a guy with a receding hairline, Howard’s self-destruction looms large in any consideration of him. Early on June 11, 1936, as his mother lay dying, Robert Howard asked the attendant nurse if she would ever recover consciousness and the nurse said gently, “No.” Howard then stepped outside and got into his car. No one present thought anything of this, because he made a daily run into town (Cross Plains, Texas) to pick up his mail. But then a shot rang out. Robert slumped over the steering wheel. He had shot himself above the right ear, the bullet passing out the other side of his head. He died eight hours later, without regaining consciousness. His mother died the next day.

This was a deliberate, planned act. In the weeks before, Robert had borrowed the gun he used, left instructions with his literary agent about what to do in the case of his demise, and even purchased a gravesite for the whole family in nearby Brownwood. While the suicide is not the whole of the Robert E. Howard story, the grimness of his writings, in which life is seen as an unrelieved, brutal struggle, and such poems as “The Tempter” and “Lines Written in the Realization That I Must Die” provide endless fodder for posthumous psychoanalysis. It has been suggested somewhat dubiously that Robert was a classic Oedipal case. It is true that his relationship with his mother was unusually close. He grew up an only child, often caring for her when she was ill, alone with her while his father, as a country doctor, made his rounds. But he also had a fiercely independent spirit. He achieved financial independence through his writing, but he never broke free of his parents, being bound both by his father’s authority, a sense of duty to his mother, and, undeniably, his love for her. It wasn’t that he shot himself because he could not bear to go on without Mama, but because, once he knew she would never awaken, he felt his duty was done and there was no further need to endure living.

Robert Howard was by all reports including his own (he was a great letter-writer) a person of deeply emotional temperament, given to what he once ascribed to Conan, “great mirth and melancholy.” He could be good, jovial company when it suited him. He also wrote of his “black moods.” He had a paranoid streak, once stopping the car as he drove with a colleague (E. Hoffmann Price), skulking about with gun in hand to make sure he was not about to be ambushed by “enemies.” How much of this was for show is not clear. No one who knew him ever confirmed the existence of any such enemies. His letters are filled with lurid accounts of frontier violence. He may have been trying to impress Price.

Though controlled by his parents, Robert had bitterly resented anyone else who had power over him, including teachers and bosses in the various part-time jobs he miserably endured as a young man. He had a violent temper. Once, when he was working as a soda jerk in a drugstore, an oilfield roughneck made an obvious show of stealing a magazine and rolling it up under his shirt. Robert seized an icepick and said in a low voice, “Are you pregnant?” Fortunately the man laughed and backed down. Robert realized later that he had been ready to do murder. Yet he was also so tender-hearted that when his dog lay dying, he left town for several days until his father had dealt with it.

He defied his parents in many ways. A passionate devotee of boxing, he not only immersed himself in the lore of the ring, but practiced the sport himself with roughnecks and laborers at the local icehouse. A large, burly man, he must have been good at it. His mother must have been horrified if she knew. She also couldn’t have approved of the fact that during Prohibition he bought bootleg beer there. There is an extant photograph of Robert standing by the side of his house, drinking beer from a glass the size of a fishbowl. He’d once promised his mother he’d never drink.

Far more important was his romance with a young schoolteacher, Novalyne Price, the story of which was made into a film, The Whole Wide World (1996), starring Vincent D’Onofrio as Howard. While you might think that, particularly in the society of rural Texas in the 1930s, parents would have felt considerable relief when their stay-at-home son in his late twenties began to show a belated interest in the opposite sex, Howard’s decidedly did not. They were united in their efforts not to “lose” their boy. They did their best, politely but firmly, to discourage her. When she and Robert hit a rocky spot and apparently broke up, they must have felt that they had succeeded. One can’t help but speculate that if Robert and moved out and married Novalyne he might have survived. He could well have lived into the 1980s. Many people reading this could have met him.

Meanwhile the senior Howards supported Robert’s writing, when no one else did. He sat in his narrow “study,” a walled in porch little wider than a corridor, just outside his mother’s bedroom window, pounding away on his typewriter, sometimes so caught up in his stories that he shouted the exciting parts aloud in a booming voice, and if the neighbors complained of the noise, that was just too bad. Robert was certainly regarded as eccentric by most of his contemporaries. He was, after all, doing something that no one else in town understood. He was the only writer in that part of Texas, and, aside from a few literary-minded friends of minimal accomplishments, the only other writer he ever met was fellow pulpster E. Hoffmann Price, who came to visit during a cross-country road trip.

So there he was, trapped, alone, spinning magnificent fantasies, shouting rage and defiance at the world, until his time ran out.

Further reading:

de Camp, L. Sprague, & Catherine C. de Camp & Jane Whittington Griffin. Dark Valley Destiny, The Life of Robert E. Howard. Bluejay Books, 1983. Pioneering biography, based on interviews with many people who knew Howard.

Ellis, Novalyne Price. One Who Walked Alone, Robert E. Howard, the Final Years. Donald M. Grant, 1986. An intimate memoir, by Howard’s one girlfriend.

Finn, Mark. Blood &Thunder, The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard. MonkeyBrain Books, 2006. Another biography, by a fellow Texan, very good for cultural context.


Next: Not just Conan. What Robert E. Howard wrote.

Darrell Schweitzer is the author of The Mask of the Sorcerer, The Shattered Goddess, and The White Isle, in addition to about 300 published stories, most in the fantasy/horror area. He has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award four times and won it once, as co-editor of Weird Tales, a post he held for 19 years. He is widely published as a critic and reviewer, and is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Science Fiction. He has edited critical symposia about Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, and is the author of a book-length study of Lord Dunsany.

Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
Howard was physically isolated from other writers but he did have a large amount of correspondence with them. He also seems to have taken quite a few car trips with friends. But, yes, he was always pulled back Cross Plains.
It does seem like it was a decision he had carefully planned for--very sad.
John R. Fultz
2. John R. Fultz
What we see when we look at REH's life, particularly his suicide, is classic deep depression. This, combined with a Romantic temperment (just read his poetry), is often a dangerous combination. It's pretty obvious that, as mentioned above, he had planned his death well before his mother's passing, and was simply waiting until she was beyond his help and his reponsibility was done. Today, someone would have probably put him on some kind of medication--which would have quite probably ended his creative endeavors. As far as I know, people simply weren't treated for depression in Howard's day.

The flame that burns twice as bright burns only half as long.

R.I.P. Bob Howard
John R. Fultz
3. BenF
Being of artisitc temperment myself, I would rather die than be put on medication that would destroy my ability to create. That's the only reason artists are put here on earth to begin with. When that divine fire is put out through the use of mind altering drugs, you are just keeping the body alive. Not the soul.
Wesley Osam
4. Wesley
Antidepressant medication does not destroy creativity. Depression destroys creativity. Psychiatric medication exists to help depression sufferers function. The idea that antidepressants zombify people is a myth, and an incredibly pernicious one.
Jennifer Baughman
5. JenniferBaughman
Being of artistic temperament myself, I am tremendously appreciative of the pharmaceuticals that allow me to actually tap my creativity on a regular basis, rather than having to rely on the vagaries of naughty brain chemistry.
Cynthia Ward
6. CynthiaWard
So far, at least, I've had the good fortune of not requiring pharmaceutical aid. However, I know many writers who take or have taken anti-depressants.

Every one either saw an increase in his/her writing output, or else was able to resume writing after a long period of writing no fiction at all.

If an anti-depressant is suppressing your creativity, time to talk to your doctor about altering your dosage or drug, or tapering off under supervision.
Nonny Morgan
7. Nonny
While in Robert E. Howard's time, psychiatric medication was a completely different beast than it is now, I'm really uncomfortable with the overall suggestion that psych meds destroy creativity.

I spent the last several years struggling to be able to create. I was locked in an endless cycle of depression and brief periods of hypomania, in which I'd start some new project, become very excited and enthusiastic about it, and promptly lose all interest. I shrugged it off as normal writerly problems.

After enough years of this, and the cycle affecting other areas in my life, I sought psychiatric help. I was diagnosed with bipolar II and put on medication.

For the first time since, mmm, 2002, I've been able to create again. I've been able to write. It's a glorious feeling.

You know part of why I didn't seek help? Because of all the people who told me that psych meds would destroy my creativity. I didn't think I had an option. I didn't want to lose my writing, myself. So instead I struggled when I didn't have to, when it was unnecessary, when two damn pills a day could have solved it. And I lost years. Years.

Psych meds can have the "zombie" side effect. They don't have to. In fact, that's a clear sign that you are on the wrong med. Robert E. Howard probably wouldn't have had many options in his day, but nowadays, there are literally dozens of medications for depression, bipolar, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders.

And for gods' sake, if you're trying psych meds, and your doctor doesn't take loss of creativity seriously, find a new bloody doctor. Anything that interferes with your life as you want to live it should be taken seriously.
John R. Fultz
8. a-j
Hear hear to the last few remarks. Depression is the creeping dark death of creativity, not the wellspring. And at the risk of sounding as if I am pulling rank, I know whereof I speak. Bi-polar disorder might produce creative highs, but depression just smothers everything. Of course, it is unlikely that we will ever know why Howard committed suicide beyond the basic fact that it was linked to his mother's inevitable death. Iirc, the doctors and nurses were under instruction not to reveal the seriousness of her condition to him precisely because his father feared what he might do, but the warning was missed/ignored by one medic.

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