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.


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