Robert E Howard was, in his very short life time, responsible for the creation of pulp fiction characters that are still “alive” today, over seventy years after he created them. He was an American writer of fictional novels but he also dabbled in fantastical poetry, sometimes in standard verse but also in “prose” form. Many were published in poetry journals such as “Weird Tales” but, even there, his poems contained subject matter that did not appeal much to readers. He deemed them “a luxury he could not afford” and decided, from about 1930 onwards, to concentrate his efforts on his short story form of writing. He did not, of course, know at the time that he had only a few more years to live. His fertile imagination created characters like Conan the Cimmerian (also known as the Barbarian) and he followed this with many others that belong to what is now known as the “sword and sorcery” regime.
He was born Robert Ervin Howard in January 1906 in the small town of Peaster, Texas and lived all of his life in the State. His father’s occupation – traveling physician – meant that the family would regularly travel from town to town. It was not a happy household though. Father often lost money, falling for a variety of “get rich quick” schemes, while mother looked down on her husband as not being her intellectual equal. Robert was a clever boy who was influenced by his mother to read poetry and good literature. She believed that he had it in him to be a writer someday.
The boy willingly cooperated while, at the same time, developing a passionate interest in bodybuilding and boxing. He favoured the idea of becoming an adventure fiction author but it took him until the age of 23 to become reasonably successful at it. He bombarded magazines, newspapers and a variety of literary journals with his work and found a willing outlet in the pulp magazine “Weird Tales”. The Conan character was often seen having his adventures in magazine print but they never actually came out in book form until after Howard’s death. Much later, of course, there were a series of blockbuster movies featuring his creation.
He had his first poem published in 1923, in a small town newspaper. It was a romantic piece of verse, waxing lyrical about the beauty of the ocean. He called it simply The Sea and here are the opening lines of it:
It is likely that the almost constant exposure to the often violent ways of everyday Texans at that time gave Robert a somewhat jaundiced impression of the world and that is maybe why his imagination took him into fantasy worlds away from the lynchings and occasional Indian raids that were a feature of early 20th century Texas. His poems and stories contained a fair amount of violence of course, but he would have seen it as “different” to the beatings and shootings and general cruelty all around him in his day to day life.
Howard lived during the American Depression period and it would be easy to speculate that this affected his mental health in some way. Tragic though it was that his mother suffered for many years with tuberculosis, it would still not fully explain how that would prompt him to go outside to his car and then shoot himself through the head. But this is exactly what happened when he was told that she had slipped into a coma that she was unlikely to come out of.
Thus the literary world was robbed of a clever writer whose creations have often been compared to such iconic names as Batman, Dracula and Tarzan. Who knows how many more might have spilled from his fertile imagination?
Robert Erwin Howard committed suicide on the 11th June, 1936, aged 30.